Stiglers law and the business of invention

Published on: 2008-5-13

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Stigler's law and the business of invention


What would have happened had Newton not discovered gravitation? Nothing! Somebody else would have surely done it! Stigler's law states that "no scientific discovery is named after it's original discoverer". Even though it seems to be a very strong assertion, the history of science is full of instances were ideas were often developed in parallel by many inventors, often resulting in bitter controversy over "who did it first?" Does Stigler's law tell us something deeper about the very nature of invention? The stereotype of the inventor is that of a "lone genius" - ideas occur to him like "flashes of lightning" - Newton observes an apple falling and suddenly discovers the principle of gravitation! How romantic! Undoubtedly, Newton was a genius. But the discovery of gravitation (or any non-trivial scientific achievement) can't be attributed simply to individual brilliance. According to Malcolm Gladwell: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place. It should not surprise us, then, that calculus was invented by two people at the same moment in history. Pascal and Descartes had already laid the foundations. The Englishman John Wallis had pushed the state of knowledge still further. Newton’s teacher was Isaac Barrow, who had studied in Italy, and knew the critical work of Torricelli and Cavalieri. Leibniz knew Pascal’s and Descartes’s work from his time in Paris. He was close to a German named Henry Oldenburg, who, now living in London, had taken it upon himself to catalogue the latest findings of the English mathematicians. Leibniz and Newton may never have actually sat down together and shared their work in detail. But they occupied a common intellectual milieu. “All the basic work was done—someone just needed to take the next step and put it together,” Jason Bardi writes in “The Calculus Wars,” a history of the idea’s development. “If Newton and Leibniz had not discovered it, someone else would have.” Calculus was in the air. What is so special about some of the world's top Universities? By bringing together brilliant men and women and letting them collaborate with each other, they create a "climate" for invention. It is as if Universities "engineer" invention. In this very interesting article in the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell examines the "engineering" of invention. Gladwell bases his analysis on a business model invented by a former Microsoft Chief Technology officer and accomplished polymath Nathan Myhrvold. Myhrvold, being the disciple of Bill.G, takes the "University" idea to a different level. Hire all the Physics/Chemistry/Math/Computing/Biology/Medicinice/... geniuses you can get, put them in a room, do intensive brainstorming ... and, lo and behold, you have a flood of "ideas"! Now take out "patents" on all these ideas and "sell" them to interested buyers. So simple! New ideas come out of old ideas - the free refinement and mixing-and-matching of ideas is the foundation of technological progress. Business models like the one proposed by Bill.G's disciple sacrifice long term progress for the selfish gains of a few individuals - such models should be exposed and defeated. Read what Mike Masnick has to say