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Malcolm Gladwell on innovation "multiples"

May 20, 2008, 10:50 AM

Gladwell_big_ideas Malcolm Gladwell returns to the pages of The New Yorker with a story about "innovation multiples" -- independent discoveries or inventions that occurred at the same time, but in different places. As Gladwell points out, these multiples are actually surprisingly common throughout history:

"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."

So does the sheer number of multiples mean that some scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable? As Gladwell suggests, could these innovations be "in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place"? If they are, it could mean that the romantic idea of solitary genius is vastly overstated: "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."

UPDATE: Jason Kottke links to Malcolm Gladwell's new book, now available on Amazon.com ahead of a late Fall release

[image: In the Air]

 

Malcolm Gladwell on innovat...

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