12 May 2008

Multiples in Innovation

Recently I read this great article in the New Yorker about how most innovations were innovated by multiple people at the same time. The most famous example in my mind is the development of calculus-- which both Leibniz and Newton did at the same time, hundreds of miles apart.

The article thus calls into question what it really means to be a "genius." Perhaps genius is distributed more flatly across the population than we think. Also, the article talks about companies which do group brainstorming and patenting. In my own work, I have always felt that I am smarter when I have the right people around me.

Here is a snippet from the article:

"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 Bienayme 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 are pinning medals on heroes. In fact, we are 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."