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Who says big ideas are rare? - by Malcolm Gladwell

 Who says big ideas are rare?

Nathan Myhrvold met Jack Horner on the set of the “Jurassic Park” sequel in 1996. Horner is an eminent paleontologist, and was a consultant on the movie. Myhrvold was there because he really likes dinosaurs. Between takes, the two men got to talking, and Horner asked Myhrvold if he was interested in funding dinosaur expeditions.

Myhrvold is of Nordic extraction, and he looks every bit the bearded, fair-haired Viking—not so much the tall, ferocious kind who raped and pillaged as the impish, roly-poly kind who stayed home by the fjords trying to turn lead into gold. He is gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale. He graduated from high school at fourteen. He started Microsoft’s research division, leaving, in 1999, with hundreds of millions. He is obsessed with aperiodic tile patterns. (Imagine a floor tiled in a pattern that never repeats.) When Myhrvold built his own house, on the shores of Lake Washington, outside Seattle—a vast, silvery hypermodernist structure described by his wife as the place in the sci-fi movie where the aliens live—he embedded some sixty aperiodic patterns in the walls, floors, and ceilings. His front garden is planted entirely with vegetation from the Mesozoic era. (“If the ‘Jurassic Park’ thing happens,” he says, “this is where the dinosaurs will come to eat.”) One of the scholarly achievements he is proudest of is a paper he co-wrote proving that it was theoretically possible for sauropods—his favorite kind of dinosaur—to have snapped their tails back and forth faster than the speed of sound. How could he say no to the great Jack Horner?

“What you do on a dinosaur expedition is you hike and look at the ground,” Myhrvold explains. “You find bones sticking out of the dirt and, once you see something, you dig.” In Montana, which is prime dinosaur country, people had been hiking around and looking for bones for at least a hundred years. But Horner wanted to keep trying. So he and Myhrvold put together a number of teams, totalling as many as fifty people. They crossed the Fort Peck reservoir in boats, and began to explore the Montana badlands in earnest. They went out for weeks at a time, several times a year. They flew equipment in on helicopters. They mapped the full dinosaur ecology—bringing in specialists from other disciplines. And they found dinosaur bones by the truckload.

Once, a team member came across a bone sticking out from the bottom of a recently eroded cliff. It took Horner’s field crew three summers to dig it out, and when they broke the bone open a black, gooey substance trickled out—a discovery that led Myhrvold and his friend Lowell Wood on a twenty-minute digression at dinner one night about how, given enough goo and a sufficient number of chicken embryos, they could “make another one.”

There was also Myhrvold’s own find: a line of vertebrae, as big as apples, just lying on the ground in front of him. “It was seven years ago. It was a bunch of bones from a fairly rare dinosaur called a thescelosaurus. I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was walking with Jack and my son. Then Jack said, ‘Look, there’s a bone in the side of the hill.’ And we look at it, and it’s a piece of a jawbone with a tooth the size of a banana. It was a T. rex skull. There was nothing else it could possibly be.”

People weren’t finding dinosaur bones, and they assumed that it was because they were rare. But—and almost everything that Myhrvold has been up to during the past half decade follows from this fact—it was our fault. We didn’t look hard enough.

Myhrvold gave the skeleton to the Smithsonian. It’s called the N. rex. “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world,” Myhrvold said. “From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens. From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more.” Myhrvold has the kind of laugh that scatters pigeons. “We have dominant T. rex market share.”

In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell spent the summer with his parents in Brantford, Ontario. He was twenty-seven years old, and employed as a speech therapist in Boston. But his real interest was solving the puzzle of what he then called the “harmonic telegraph.” In Boston, he had tinkered obsessively with tuning forks and electromagnetic coils, often staying up all night when he was in the grip of an idea. When he went to Brantford, he brought with him an actual human ear, taken from a cadaver and preserved, to which he attached a pen, so that he could record the vibration of the ear’s bones when he spoke into it.

One day, Bell went for a walk on a bluff overlooking the Grand River, near his parents’ house. In a recent biography of Bell, “Reluctant Genius,” Charlotte Gray writes:

A large tree had blown down here, creating a natural and completely private belvedere, which [he] had dubbed his “dreaming place.” Slouched on a wicker chair, his hands in his pockets, he stared unseeing at the swiftly flowing river below him. Far from the bustle of Boston and the pressure of competition from other eager inventors, he mulled over everything he had discovered about sound.

In that moment, Bell knew the answer to the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph. Electric currents could convey sound along a wire if they undulated in accordance with the sound waves. Back in Boston, he hired a research assistant, Thomas Watson. He turned his attic into a laboratory, and redoubled his efforts. Then, on March 10, 1876, he set up one end of his crude prototype in his bedroom, and had Watson take the other end to the room next door. Bell, always prone to clumsiness, spilled acid on his clothes. “Mr. Watson, come here,” he cried out. Watson came running—but only because he had heard Bell on the receiver, plain as day. The telephone was born.

In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights—that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies. He thought that if he brought lots of very clever people together he could reconstruct that moment by the Grand River.

One rainy day last November, Myhrvold held an “invention session,” as he calls such meetings, on the technology of self-assembly. What if it was possible to break a complex piece of machinery into a thousand pieces and then, at some predetermined moment, have the machine put itself back together again? That had to be useful. But for what?

The meeting, like many of Myhrvold’s sessions, was held in a conference room in the Intellectual Ventures laboratory, a big warehouse in an industrial park across Lake Washington from Seattle: plasma TV screens on the walls, a long table furnished with bottles of Diet Pepsi and big bowls of cashews.

Chairing the meeting was Casey Tegreene, an electrical engineer with a law degree, who is the chief patent counsel for I.V. He stood at one end of the table. Myhrvold was at the opposite end. Next to him was Edward Jung, whom Myhrvold met at Microsoft. Jung is lean and sleek, with closely cropped fine black hair. Once, he spent twenty-two days walking across Texas with nothing but a bedroll, a flashlight, and a rifle, from Big Bend, in the west, to Houston, where he was going to deliver a paper at a biology conference. On the other side of the table from Jung was Lowell Wood, an imposing man with graying red hair and an enormous head. Three or four pens were crammed into his shirt pocket. The screen saver on his laptop was a picture of Stonehenge.

“You know how musicians will say, ‘My teacher was So-and-So, and his teacher was So-and-So,’ right back to Beethoven?” Myhrvold says. “So Lowell was the great protégé of Edward Teller. He was at Lawrence Livermore. He was the technical director of Star Wars.” Myhrvold and Wood have known each other since Myhrvold was a teen-ager and Wood interviewed him for a graduate fellowship called the Hertz. “If you want to know what Nathan was like at that age,” Wood said, “look at that ball of fire now and scale that up by eight or ten decibels.” Wood bent the rules for Myhrvold; the Hertz was supposed to be for research in real-world problems. Myhrvold’s field at that point, quantum cosmology, involved the application of quantum mechanics to the period just after the big bang, which means, as Myhrvold likes to say, that he had no interest in the universe a microsecond after its creation.

The chairman of the chemistry department at Stanford, Richard Zare, had flown in for the day, as had Eric Leuthardt, a young neurosurgeon from Washington University, in St. Louis, who is a regular at I.V. sessions. At the back was a sombre, bearded man named Rod Hyde, who had been Wood’s protégé at Lawrence Livermore.

Tegreene began. “There really aren’t any rules,” he told everyone. “We may start out talking about refined plastics and end up talking about shoes, and that’s O.K.”

He started in on the “prep.” In the previous weeks, he and his staff had reviewed the relevant scientific literature and recent patent filings in order to come up with a short briefing on what was and wasn’t known about self-assembly. A short BBC documentary was shown, on the early work of the scientist Lionel Penrose. Richard Zare passed around a set of what looked like ceramic dice. Leuthardt drew elaborate diagrams of the spine on the blackboard. Self-assembly was very useful in eye-of-the-needle problems—in cases where you had to get something very large through a very small hole—and Leuthardt wondered if it might be helpful in minimally invasive surgery.

The conversation went in fits and starts. “I’m asking a simple question and getting a long-winded answer,” Jung said at one point, quietly. Wood played the role of devil’s advocate. During a break, Myhrvold announced that he had just bought a CAT scanner, on an Internet auction site.

“I put in a minimum bid of twenty-nine hundred dollars,” he said. There was much murmuring and nodding around the room. Myhrvold’s friends, like Myhrvold, seemed to be of the opinion that there is no downside to having a CAT scanner, especially if you can get it for twenty-nine hundred dollars.

Before long, self-assembly was put aside and the talk swung to how to improve X-rays, and then to the puzzling phenomenon of soldiers in Iraq who survive a bomb blast only to die a few days later of a stroke. Wood thought it was a shock wave, penetrating the soldiers’ helmets and surging through their brains, tearing blood vessels away from tissue. “Lowell is the living example of something better than the Internet,” Jung said after the meeting was over. “On the Internet, you can search for whatever you want, but you have to know the right terms. With Lowell, you just give him a concept, and this stuff pops out.”

Leuthardt, the neurosurgeon, thought that Wood’s argument was unconvincing. The two went back and forth, arguing about how you could make a helmet that would better protect soldiers.

“We should be careful how much mental energy we spend on this,” Leuthardt said, after a few minutes.

Wood started talking about the particular properties of bullets with tungsten cores.

“Shouldn’t someone tell the Pentagon?” a voice said, only half jokingly, from the back of the room.

How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell’s, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas—sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. The telephone was his obsession. He approached it from a unique perspective, that of a speech therapist. He had put in years of preparation before that moment by the Grand River, and it was impossible to know what unconscious associations triggered his great insight. Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination. How can you put that in a bottle?

But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. “Afterward, Nathan kept saying, ‘There are so many inventions,’ ” Wood recalled. “He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like.”

The original expectation was that I.V. would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

And the kinds of ideas the group came up with weren’t trivial. Intellectual Ventures just had a patent issued on automatic, battery-powered glasses, with a tiny video camera that reads the image off the retina and adjusts the fluid-filled lenses accordingly, up to ten times a second. It just licensed off a cluster of its patents, for eighty million dollars. It has invented new kinds of techniques for making microchips and improving jet engines; it has proposed a way to custom-tailor the mesh “sleeve” that neurosurgeons can use to repair aneurysms.

Bill Gates, whose company, Microsoft, is one of the major investors in Intellectual Ventures, says, “I can give you fifty examples of ideas they’ve had where, if you take just one of them, you’d have a startup company right there.” Gates has participated in a number of invention sessions, and, with other members of the Gates Foundation, meets every few months with Myhrvold to brainstorm about things like malaria or H.I.V. “Nathan sent over a hundred scientific papers beforehand,” Gates said of the last such meeting. “The amount of reading was huge. But it was fantastic. There’s this idea they have where you can track moving things by counting wing beats. So you could build a mosquito fence and clear an entire area. They had some ideas about super-thermoses, so you wouldn’t need refrigerators for certain things. They also came up with this idea to stop hurricanes. Basically, the waves in the ocean have energy, and you use that to lower the temperature differential. I’m not saying it necessarily is going to work. But it’s just an example of something where you go, Wow.”

One of the sessions that Gates participated in was on the possibility of resuscitating nuclear energy. “Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor,” Myhrvold explained. “No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple. Every serious nuclear accident involves operator error, so you want to eliminate the operator altogether. Lowell and Rod and others wrote a paper on it once. So we did several sessions on it.”

The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city. The reactor core would be no more than several metres wide and about ten metres long. It would be enclosed in a sealed, armored box. The box would work for thirty years, without need for refuelling. Wood’s idea was that the box would run on thorium, which is a very common, mildly radioactive metal. (The world has roughly a hundred-thousand-year supply, he figures.) Myhrvold’s idea was that it should run on spent fuel from existing power plants. “Waste has negative cost,” Myhrvold said. “This is how we make this idea politically and regulatorily attractive. Lowell and I had a monthlong no-holds-barred nuclear-physics battle. He didn’t believe waste would work. It turns out it does.” Myhrvold grinned. “He concedes it now.”

It was a long-shot idea, easily fifteen years from reality, if it became a reality at all. It was just a tantalizing idea at this point, but who wasn’t interested in seeing where it would lead? “We have thirty guys working on it,” he went on. “I have more people doing cutting-edge nuclear work than General Electric. We’re looking for someone to partner with us, because this is a huge undertaking. We took out an ad in Nuclear News, which is the big trade journal. It looks like something from The Onion: ‘Intellectual Ventures interested in nuclear-core designer and fission specialist.’ And, no, the F.B.I. hasn’t come knocking.” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Lowell is known to them.”

It was the dinosaur-bone story all over again. You sent a proper search team into territory where people had been looking for a hundred years, and, lo and behold, there’s a T. rex tooth the size of a banana. Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at all.

In June of 1876, a few months after he shouted out, “Mr. Watson, come here,” Alexander Graham Bell took his device to the World’s Fair in Philadelphia. There, before an audience that included the emperor of Brazil, he gave his most famous public performance. The emperor accompanied Bell’s assistant, Willie Hubbard, to an upper gallery, where the receiver had been placed, leaving Bell with his transmitter. Below them, and out of sight, Bell began to talk. “A storm of emotions crossed the Brazilian emperor’s face—uncertainty, amazement, elation,” Charlotte Gray writes. “Lifting his head from the receiver . . . he gave Willie a huge grin and said, ‘This thing speaks!’ ” Gray continues:

Soon a steady stream of portly, middle-aged men were clambering into the gallery, stripping off their jackets, and bending their ears to the receiver. “For an hour or more,” Willie remembered, “all took turns in talking and listening, testing the line in every possible way, evidently looking for some trickery, or thinking that the sound was carried through the air. . . . It seemed to be nearly all too wonderful for belief.”

Bell was not the only one to give a presentation on the telephone at the Philadelphia Exhibition, however. Someone else spoke first. His name was Elisha Gray. Gray never had an epiphany overlooking the Grand River. Few have claimed that Gray was a genius. He does not seem to have been obsessive, or to have routinely stayed up all night while in the grip of an idea—although we don’t really know, because, unlike Bell, he has never been the subject of a full-length biography. Gray was simply a very adept inventor. He was the author of a number of discoveries relating to the telegraph industry, including a self-adjusting relay that solved the problem of circuits sticking open or shut, and a telegraph printer—a precursor of what was later called the Teletype machine. He worked closely with Western Union. He had a very capable partner named Enos Barton, with whom he formed a company that later became the Western Electric Company and its offshoot Graybar (of Graybar Building fame). And Gray was working on the telephone at the same time that Bell was. In fact, the two filed notice with the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., on the same day—February 14, 1876. Bell went on to make telephones with the company that later became A. T. & T. Gray went on to make telephones in partnership with Western Union and Thomas Edison, and—until Gray’s team was forced to settle a lawsuit with Bell’s company—the general consensus was that Gray and Edison’s telephone was better than Bell’s telephone.

In order to get one of the greatest inventions of the modern age, in other words, we thought we needed the solitary genius. But if Alexander Graham Bell had fallen into the Grand River and drowned that day back in Brantford, the world would still have had the telephone, the only difference being that the telephone company would have been nicknamed Ma Gray, not Ma Bell.

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

“There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” Ogburn and Thomas note, and they continue:

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.

For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place. It should not surprise us, then, that calculus was invented by two people at the same moment in history. Pascal and Descartes had already laid the foundations. The Englishman John Wallis had pushed the state of knowledge still further. Newton’s teacher was Isaac Barrow, who had studied in Italy, and knew the critical work of Torricelli and Cavalieri. Leibniz knew Pascal’s and Descartes’s work from his time in Paris. He was close to a German named Henry Oldenburg, who, now living in London, had taken it upon himself to catalogue the latest findings of the English mathematicians. Leibniz and Newton may never have actually sat down together and shared their work in detail. But they occupied a common intellectual milieu. “All the basic work was done—someone just needed to take the next step and put it together,” Jason Bardi writes in “The Calculus Wars,” a history of the idea’s development. “If Newton and Leibniz had not discovered it, someone else would have.” Calculus was in the air.

Of course, that is not the way Newton saw it. He had done his calculus work in the mid-sixteen-sixties, but never published it. And after Leibniz came out with his calculus, in the sixteen-eighties, people in Newton’s circle accused Leibniz of stealing his work, setting off one of the great scientific scandals of the seventeenth century. That is the inevitable human response. We’re reluctant to believe that great discoveries are in the air. We want to believe that great discoveries are in our heads—and to each party in the multiple the presence of the other party is invariably cause for suspicion.

Thus the biographer Robert Bruce, in “Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude,” casts a skeptical eye on Elisha Gray. Was it entirely coincidence, he asks, that the two filed on exactly the same day? “If Gray had prevailed in the end,” he goes on,

by Malcolm Gladwell
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