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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Evolution Or Revolution Part II

In the previous post I focused mainly on new ideas in technology and industry, but it is also easy to find examples in science where there is no inherent distinction between evolutionary ideas and revolutionary ideas.

The curious thing is that many scientific ideas which we consider revolutionary today attracted so little attention when they were first proposed:

Theory of Universal Gravitation (1687)
Direct influences: Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Christaan Huygens
Originator(s): Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke (?)
Initial response: Priority disputes with Hooke, cool reception by Newton's peers for incompatibility with aether and his refusal to speculate on the basic nature of gravity.

Theory of Natural Selection (1859)
Direct influences: Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Thomas Malthus, James Hutton
Originator(s): Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace
Initial response: Little initial reaction from academia when theory was presented (President of the Linnean Society remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries), widespread public interest and controversy when the book was published.

Theory of Relativity (Special Relativity 1905, General Relativity 1915)
Direct influences: Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré, James Clerk Maxwell
Originator(s): Albert Einstein, Henri Poincaré (?)
Initial response: Publication of special relativity was largely unnoticed by physicists and incomprehensible to the public. Einstein himself considered his discovery of the photoelectric effect to be more "revolutionary". He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect.

DNA double-helix (1953)
Direct influences: Colin MacLeod, Maclyn McCarty, Alfred Hershey, Martha Chase, Erwin Chargaff, Linus Pauling (?)
Originator(s): Rosalind Franklin, James D. Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins
Initial response: Practically no response. Watson noted that in the first 5 years there were only about 5 references to the original Nature article.

I doubt there is any reliable way to determine if any particular new idea will make a big splash or not. A prudent strategy is simply to produce lots of new ideas and test them out.

I believe that most of the new ideas today which will become important in the future will be "small" (not requiring industrial-scale resources) ideas, not because these have an inherently better chance of success, but simply because there will be many more small ideas, due to the limited resources and time of the individuals who create them.

In addition, a free marketplace of small ideas will help cross-pollinate each other and amplify their potential effect. Together, a large collection of "incremental improvements" may suddenly achieve an emergent effect that is much larger than the sum of its parts.

Here, I'll let Carl Sagan illustrate this for you. He says it much better than I can.