In “The Telephone Gambit,” Seth Shulman makes the opposite case. Just before Bell had his famous conversation with Watson, Shulman points out, he visited the Patent Office in Washington. And the transmitter design that Bell immediately sketched in his notebook upon his return to Boston was identical to the sketch of the transmitter that Gray had submitted to the Patent Office. This could not be coincidence, Shulman concludes, and thereupon constructs an ingenious (and, it should be said, highly entertaining) revisionist account of Bell’s invention, complete with allegations of corruption and romantic turmoil. Bell’s telephone, he writes, is “one of the most consequential thefts in history.”
But surely Gray and Bell occupied their scientific moment in the same way that Leibniz and Newton did. They arrived at electric speech by more or less the same pathway. They were trying to find a way to send more than one message at a time along a telegraph wire—which was then one of the central technological problems of the day. They had read the same essential sources—particularly the work of Philipp Reis, the German physicist who had come startlingly close to building a working telephone back in the early eighteen-sixties. The arguments of Bruce and Shulman suppose that great ideas are precious. It is too much for them to imagine that a discovery as remarkable as the telephone could arise in two places at once. But five people came up with the steamboat, and nine people came up with the telescope, and, if Gray had fallen into the Grand River along with Bell, some Joe Smith somewhere would likely have come up with the telephone instead and Ma Smith would have run the show. Good ideas are out there for anyone with the wit and the will to find them, which is how a group of people can sit down to dinner, put their minds to it, and end up with eight single-spaced pages of ideas.
Last March, Myhrvold decided to do an invention session with Eric Leuthardt and several other physicians in St. Louis. Rod Hyde came, along with a scientist from M.I.T. named Ed Boyden. Wood was there as well.
“Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,” Myhrvold recalled. “He said, ‘I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?’ And we all said, ‘We don’t know. Ten times?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘As many as a million times.’ Isn’t that amazing? If you had no time, you’d be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you’ve got a chance to intercept them.”
How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood,” he said. “And I looked at that figure and said, ‘Something’s wrong here. That can’t possibly be true.’ The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying—one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells.”
Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. The New England Journal article was about metastatic breast cancer, and it seemed to Wood that when women die of metastatic breast cancer they don’t die with thousands of tumors. The vast majority of circulating cancer cells don’t do anything.
“It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ones,” he went on. “Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn’t it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You naïvely think it’s once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn’t. In other words, metastatic cancer—the brand of cancer that kills us—is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.”
That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They’re often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? “You don’t have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,” Wood went on. “Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that’s all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn’t have to be a particularly efficient filter.”
Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do—out of sheer force of habit and training—is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.
That was also why Myhrvold had wanted to take his crew to St. Louis to meet with the surgeons. He likes to say that the only time a physicist and a brain surgeon meet is when the physicist is about to be cut open—and to his mind that made no sense. Surgeons had all kinds of problems that they didn’t realize had solutions, and physicists had all kinds of solutions to things that they didn’t realize were problems. At one point, Myhrvold asked the surgeons what, in a perfect world, would make their lives easier, and they said that they wanted an X-ray that went only skin deep. They wanted to know, before they made their first incision, what was just below the surface. When the Intellectual Ventures crew heard that, their response was amazement. “That’s your dream? A subcutaneous X-ray? We can do that.”
Insight could be orchestrated: that was the lesson. If someone who knew how to make a filter had a conversation with someone who knew a lot about cancer and with someone who read the medical literature like a physicist, then maybe you could come up with a cancer treatment. It helped as well that Casey Tegreene had a law degree, Lowell Wood had spent his career dreaming up weapons for the government, Nathan Myhrvold was a ball of fire, Edward Jung had walked across Texas. They had different backgrounds and temperaments and perspectives, and if you gave them something to think about that they did not ordinarily think about—like hurricanes, or jet engines, or metastatic cancer—you were guaranteed a fresh set of eyes.
There were drawbacks to this approach, of course. The outsider, not knowing what the insider knew, would make a lot of mistakes and chase down a lot of rabbit holes. Myhrvold admits that many of the ideas that come out of the invention sessions come to naught. After a session, the Ph.D.s on the I.V. staff examine each proposal closely and decide which ones are worth pursuing. They talk to outside experts; they reread the literature. Myhrvold isn’t even willing to guess what his company’s most promising inventions are. “That’s a fool’s game,” he says. If ideas are cheap, there is no point in making predictions, or worrying about failures, or obsessing, like Newton and Leibniz, or Bell and Gray, over who was first. After I.V. came up with its cancer-filter idea, it discovered that there was a company, based in Rochester, that was already developing a cancer filter. Filters were a multiple. But so what? If I.V.’s design wasn’t the best, Myhrvold had two thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine other ideas to pursue.
In his living room, Myhrvold has a life-size T. rex skeleton, surrounded by all manner of other dinosaur artifacts. One of those is a cast of a nest of oviraptor eggs, each the size of an eggplant. You’d think a bird that big would have one egg, or maybe two. That’s the general rule: the larger the animal, the lower the fecundity. But it didn’t. For Myhrvold, it was one of the many ways in which dinosaurs could teach us about ourselves. “You know how many eggs were in that nest?” Myhrvold asked. “Thirty-two.”
In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples, he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight. “Consider the case of Kelvin, by way of illustration,” Merton writes, summarizing work he had done with his Columbia colleague Elinor Barber:
After examining some 400 of his 661 scientific communications and addresses . . . Dr. Elinor Barber and I find him testifying to at least 32 multiple discoveries in which he eventually found that his independent discoveries had also been made by others. These 32 multiples involved an aggregate of 30 other scientists, some, like Stokes, Green, Helmholtz, Cavendish, Clausius, Poincaré, Rayleigh, themselves men of undeniable genius, others, like Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley and Lamé, being men of talent, no doubt, but still not of the highest order. . . . For the hypothesis that each of these discoveries was destined to find expression, even if the genius of Kelvin had not obtained, there is the best of traditional proof: each was in fact made by others. Yet Kelvin’s stature as a genius remains undiminished. For it required a considerable number of others to duplicate these 32 discoveries which Kelvin himself made.
This is, surely, what an invention session is: it is Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley, and Lamé in a room together, and if you have them on your staff you can get a big chunk of Kelvin’s discoveries, without ever needing to have Kelvin—which is fortunate, because, although there are plenty of Homer Lanes, Varleys, and Pfaffs in the world, there are very few Kelvins.
Merton’s observation about scientific geniuses is clearly not true of artistic geniuses, however. 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, and all the arguments over calculus, the accusations back and forth between the Bell and the Gray camps, and our persistent inability to come to terms with the existence of multiples are the result of our misplaced desire to impose the paradigm of artistic invention on a world where it doesn’t belong. Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner’s desk a few hours before Gray’s. The first kind of creation was sui generis; the second could be re-created in a warehouse outside Seattle.
This is a confusing distinction, because we use the same words to describe both kinds of inventors, and the brilliant scientist is every bit as dazzling in person as the brilliant playwright. The unavoidable first response to Myhrvold and his crew is to think of them as a kind of dream team, but, of course, the fact that they invent as prodigiously and effortlessly as they do is evidence that they are not a dream team at all. You could put together an Intellectual Ventures in Los Angeles, if you wanted to, and Chicago, and New York and Baltimore, and anywhere you could find enough imagination, a fresh set of eyes, and a room full of Varleys and Pfaffs.
The statistician Stephen Stigler once wrote an elegant essay about the futility of the practice of eponymy in science—that is, the practice of naming a scientific discovery after its inventor. That’s another idea inappropriately borrowed from the cultural realm. As Stigler pointed out, “It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.” For that matter, the Pythagorean theorem was known before Pythagoras; Gaussian distributions were not discovered by Gauss. The examples were so legion that Stigler declared the existence of Stigler’s Law: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” There are just too many people with an equal shot at those ideas floating out there in the ether. We think we’re pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we’re pinning tails on donkeys.
Stigler’s Law was true, Stigler gleefully pointed out, even of Stigler’s Law itself. The idea that credit does not align with discovery, he reveals at the very end of his essay, was in fact first put forth by Merton. “We may expect,” Stigler concluded, “that in years to come, Robert K. Merton, and his colleagues and students, will provide us with answers to these and other questions regarding eponymy, completing what, but for the Law, would be called the Merton Theory of the reward system of science.”
In April, Lowell Wood was on the East Coast for a meeting of the Hertz Foundation fellows in Woods Hole. Afterward, he came to New York to make a pilgrimage to the American Museum of Natural History. He had just half a day, so he began right away in the Dinosaur Halls. He spent what he later described as a “ridiculously prolonged” period of time at the first station in the Ornithischian Hall—the ankylosaurus shrine. He knew it by heart. His next stop was the dimetrodon, the progenitor of Mammalia. This was a family tradition. When Wood first took his daughter to the museum, she dubbed the fossil “Great Grand-Uncle Dimetrodon,” and they always paid their respects to it. Next, he visited a glyptodont; this creature was the only truly armored mammal, a fact of great significance to a former weaponeer.
He then wandered into the Vertebrate Origins gallery and, for the hundredth time, wondered about the strange openings that Archosauria had in front of their eyes and behind their nostrils. They had to be for breathing, didn’t they? He tried to come up with an alternate hypothesis, and couldn’t—but then he couldn’t come up with a way to confirm his own hunch, either. It was a puzzle. Perhaps someday he would figure it out. Perhaps someone else would. Or perhaps someone would find another skeleton that shed light on the mystery. Nathan Myhrvold and Jack Horner had branched out from Montana, and at the end of the summer were going to Mongolia, to hunt in the Gobi desert. There were a lot more bones where these came from.