08 May 2008


Einstein may have been inevitable, but the Beatles probably weren't

Gladwell and Einstein, men of big hairIn a recent CBC podcast, writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that "those of you who are familiar with my writing will know that this practice of talking about X by discussing Y is my only rhetorical move." His recent excellent article in The New Yorker, about scientists who independently discovered or invented things at the same time (via Angela Gunn), is a prime example.

The article is about 7000 words long. Here is Gladwell's thesis statement:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call "multiples"—turns out to be extremely common.

You don't get to read that until more than 3500 words have passed: if you skip the title of the piece ("In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas Are Rare?"), Gladwell doesn't tell you what his essay is about until it's more than half over. It's nevertheless fascinating, but even (or perhaps especially) if you have read the title, you might be like me. As you read the first half, you may very well keep thinking, "Yeah, Malcolm, so what's your point?"

When the time is right

His main one is that many inventions and scientific discoveries happen because the time is right. Many people are working on certain types of ideas (the mathematics of changing systems, the relationships of fossil organisms after discovering that the earth is very old, the next step of electrical communications after the telegraph), so it's very likely that someone—maybe several someones—will come up with a key new concept based on those ideas (calculus, evolution by natural selection, the telephone).

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's wonderful 2007 biography of Albert Einstein, the first published after the release of many of Einstein's private letters and writings. Einstein was so remarkable that his last name has become a noun, a synonym for genius around the world.

Yet of course he didn't generate his world-changing ideas out of the ether (nor, since he disproved the existence of the ether, out of a vacuum). Einstein's synthesis of the ideas of Planck and Mach and Maxwell and others with the experimental results of Faraday, Curie, Michelson and Morley, and still others would have happened eventually. But it might have taken a few decades, and probably a number of eminent scientists, to reveal that atoms actually existed, that light is a wave-particle duality, that gravity can be thought of as the warping of space-time, and the dozens of other ideas that Einstein figured out largely on his own during feverish bursts of creativity in between 1905 and 1917.

So what is genius?

Gladwell doesn't talk about Einstein at all, but he also doesn't diminish genius in his article. Rather, he reframes it: someone like Einstein (or Newton, or Kelvin) is brilliant enough to make a wide range of discoveries. To get a similar range of insights or inventions, you'd need a brainstorming session, or a committee, or an "invention session" of smart, but not genius-level, people. And they might not come up with genius-level ideas all at once.

In other words, in science and technology, a genius can do the work of a big group of regular people. And so geniuses often contribute to "multiples," but also do more. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus, but Leibniz didn't come up with anything like Newton's discoveries in optics or gravity.

Gladwell also has a third point, one that helps distinguish science from art. Namely, that a scientific genius and an artistic genius are different things, even though we use the same word:

You can't pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart's Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse's "La Danse." A work of artistic genius is singular.

Creating and discovering

That makes intuitive sense—there is a difference between creating something and discovering something. Einstein himself was profoundly uncomfortable with quantum theory and wave mechanics, even though he established that field of study. He spent the last half of his life fighting against their probabilistic implications. Yet quantum theory was still there, whether Einstein was involved or not.

Conversely, let's take another example that Gladwell doesn't use. Sure, without the Beatles there would still have been some kind of rock and roll after Elvis, and maybe even psychedelia in the '60s. But there wouldn't have been Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, nor maybe any record quite like it. (I doubt the Rolling Stones would have made Their Satanic Majesties Request, for instance.)

Similarly, the work of Watson, Crick, and Franklin in discovering DNA was part of a feverish mid-century effort throughout biology to determine what genes might be made of. Somebody was going to find the double helix. But nobody made paintings exactly like Picasso, or sang just like Ella. Without them, maybe no one ever would.

We are social creatures, so the twining influences and effects of our creativity can be hard to tease out. That's part of what's so cool about them.

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