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Malcolm Gladwell on innovation “multiples”


nMalcolm 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 calln”multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the firstncomprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn andnDorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight majornscientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton andnLeibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred RusselnWallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented”ndecimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, innWiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a yearnearlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by CharlesnCros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were inventednby John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi innSwitzerland.”

So does the sheer number of multiples mean that some scientificndiscoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable? As Gladwell suggests, could these innovations be “in thenair, 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;nhe or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. Thengenius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficientnsource of insight.”

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


[image: In the Air]



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