Monday, June 27, 2011

The greatest power

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ideas, creativity

I had extra time to read over the weekend, and added think time also, so I finished reading Where Good Ideas Come From:The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. The thinking part will take a considerable time yet to come. I pre-reviewed some of the crucial points earlier; Scaling in this post and the Adjacent Possible and Liquid Networks in this one. These last two items are called "idea structures" by the author.

There are five more of them, which I'll touch on briefly:
  • the Slow Hunch – The "flash of insight" that we equate with a flashbulb going off typically takes a decade or two of back-of-the-mind cogitation before it occurs. When Friedrich Kekule had his dream about the fiery snake eating its tail, that led to his discovery of the Benzene ring, he had been thinking for a long time about how C6H6 could work and be so stable (Linear C6H6 is nearly impossible to synthesize, and is expected to soon fall apart).
  • Serendipity – Ideas are often monistic, and need the support of other ideas to become a practicable reality. One of the best ideas I ever had arose from a mental collision between astronomy (orbital mechanics) and civil engineering, which I applied to physical chemistry calculations and simulations.
  • Error – Most of us know how Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin; he was a sloppy housekeeper and let a culture plate get contaminated. Also, the cosmological microwave background was discovered only after two radio astronomers got over their conviction that their radio telescope was somehow at fault. When an experiment produces unexpected results, that isn't a problem, that is a golden opportunity!
  • Exaptation – This word was first coined for evolutionary uses, such as the conversion of feathers from thermal insulation to their use to aid flight. My example above of astronomy+geotechnology is an example of exaptation.
  • Platforms – A city, or a coral reef, or a Darwininan "tangled bank", are examples of Platforms, infrastructure that other developments can rely on. Newton and others wrote of standing on the shoulders of giants. There are actually millions of shoulders out there. I didn't have to invent the FORTRAN or COMPASS languages to have a career as a computer programmer; others had laid the groundwork. You don't have to be a road-builder to be a driver, nor must you lay rail and build locomotives in order to take a train ride.
The author closes with a chapter in which he develops a four-quadrant model of the origin and environment of the great inventions of the past 600 years, taken two centuries at a time, and focusing on the Fourth Quadrant, which refers in software development terms to the Open Source movement. That is where 90% of great innovation is currently happening, in all arenas. The Appendix to the book is a key value: 44 pages limning a couple hundred key inventions from 1400-2000 A.D.

All of this is written with a fluid, easy style that makes reading easy. Early on, I expected I'd need to take plenty of time to read the book. Its thickness and small font made me cautious. But it reads as fast as a novel. That is a danger in itself, for this book is so full of material, it requires a second read to have a chance of grasping more than a fraction. That makes it a good reference work to have on hand. And what fun!

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