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Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson

Kleiber's Law: scientists had long observed that as life gets bigger, it slows down. Flies live for hours, elephants for decades; hearts of birds and small mammals pump a lot faster than giraffes or blue whales. It's not a straight line relationship - a horse is 500x size of a rabbit, but heart doesn't pump 500x slower. But it comes out at a "negative quarter power" which is the square root of the square root of 1000, which is approx 5.5. And that is the relevant number. A cow, which is about a 1000x bigger than a woodchuck, will live about 5.5x longer, and its heart will beat 5.5x slower. And this metabolic relationship applies all the way down to the microscopic level.

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Guy called Richard West applied idea to cities, and found same law. Road area, cable lengths, number gas stations, all follow Kleiber's Law. But really interesting thing is the one thing which doesn't - innovations. A city that was 10 times size of neighbour wasn't 10x more innovative, it was 17x. A city 50x bigger was 130x more innovative. Cities break free of this biological law - as they get bigger they generate more new ideas.

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Example of baby incubator made entirely out of car parts. Noticed that 3rd world countries often had expensive ($40,000) Western incubators unused because broken and no-one cd read repair manual. But every village had someone who cd fix cars. So headlights to warm, aircon fans to circ air and door bells for alarms.

Idea of the 'adjacent possible'. Every new development whether in tech or evolution, builds on existing ideas and parts, they don't just appear out of thin air. Sometimes ideas seem to break these rules, but invariably short term failures ("ahead of their time") until rest of enabling tech catches up. eg Babbage's Analytical Engine, probably the world's first programmable computer. But problem that he designed it to use (very slow) mechanical gears, rather than vacuum tubes of early computers or integrated circuits of today, neither of which, of course, were available to him.

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In same way, YouTube wd have been a flop 10 years earlier, because nobody had fast modems - a 2min vid takes an hour to download on existing 14.4bps modem

Story of Apollo 13 where engineers had to invent new way to link 2 incompatible CO2 scrubbers. In the film the chief engineer puts a jumble of parts - tubes, hoses, bags, canisters and of course duct tape - on the table, then the two pieces that had to be melded. The space gear on the table defined the 'adjacent possible', the bits that limit what can be achieved.

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The trick in coming up with innovations is not trying to think up big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

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Cities brought new threshold to the adjacent possible, making useful innovations more likely to appear and stick. Not a 'hive mind' of collective thinking, not some magical higher consciousness. Simply widened pool of minds that cd come up with and share good ideas. Not so much the 'wisdom of the crowd' as the wisdom of someone in the crowd. Not that the network is somehow smarter; it's that individuals are smarter bc they're connected to the network.

A metropolis shares one key characteristic with the Web: both environments are dense, liquid networks where information easily flows along multiple unpredictable paths. Those interconnections nurture great ideas, because great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation. Genuine insights are hard to come by; it's challenging to imagine a terrorist plot to fly passenger jets into buildings. And so, most great ideas first take shape in a partial incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And, more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as a partial hunch in another person's head. Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, but they also do something more subtle: they help complete ideas

We love the idea of an epiphany, a Eureka moment. Newton's apple has its equivalent with Darwin, who wrote in his Autobiography "In Oct 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well-prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on ... it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species."

The only problem with this story is that when researchers looked back through his notebooks 150 years later, they cd see that he had arrived at all the key concepts several years before. And, altho he dates his idea of natural selection to Sept28 1838, his journals for the next few weeks barely revisit the idea.

Book first published 1865 called Enquire Within For Everything - basically a huge compendium of how do do anything. The book remained a staple of British households right into the twentieth century. One musty copy lingered on the shelves of a London household where young son spent hours exploring this "portal to the world of information", as it described itself. A decade later, the guy was working as a software consultant in a Swiss research lab, and needed a way to organise and lnk the overwhelming amount of data. His name, of course, was Tim Berners-Lee.

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Most inventions come, as in evolution, from a novel collection of spare parts. But often they come from simple mistakes, such as invention vulcanised rubber. Good argument for idea that inventors simply generate more errors than average person, and sometimes learn from those mistakes. Being right keeps you in place. Error can create a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. Paradigm shifts begin with errors in the data, when scientists keep finding that their predictions turn out to be wrong. Joseph Priestley put a mint plant in a bell jar to deprive it of oxygen, expecting it to die in the same way as mice or spiders did. In fact it thrived even if you burnt off all the oxygen before you stuck the living plant in. Investigating this error eventually led Priestley to discovery of oxygen and photosynthesis.

Problem is that we have natural tendency to dismiss mistakes. Remedy is the lab conference: other scientists, looking at problem without enough knowledge to decide what is 'correct' can see scenarios where the mistake might actually be meaningful.

You wd expect that evolution shd have favoured DNA which didn't make mistakes. Yet it looks like every one of us carries about 150 mutations. Our cells appear to be designed to leave the door for mutation slightly open, just enough to let a small trickle of change and variation.

Coral Reefs: Symbiotic relnp between coral and a microscopic algae called zooanthella. The two organisma basically rely on each other's waste products - algae photosynthesis, outputs sugar and oxygen, which coral feeds on, and outputs CO2 nitrates and phosphates which the zooanthella lives on. As the popn of zooanthella expands, more solar energy is captured and is available to be shared with the reef ecosystem. It's like two neighbours who miraculously have a pressing need for each others garbage, and so meet every night to swap rubbish bins.

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Finally (page 218) gets round to trying to answer the question posed by the title of the book (Where do good ideas come from?)Well, it turns out that it changes. During the Renaissance, most (90%) inventions came from individuals working by themselves. By the time of the Industrial Revn, it had become a lot more collaborative - many individuals tweaking existing technology, building on previous discoveries and developments. James Watt is cited as the inventor of the steam engine, but he was one of dozens of innovators who refined the tech over the course of the eighteenth century.

The striking thing about last 2 centuries is not that this collaborative basis has continued, but the amount of non-commercial innovation that has happened. At first this was overwhelmingly via university research teams, which by nature get most of their 'rewards' by freely publishing their results, but today the collab function of Internet.

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