Monday, March 05, 2007

Picasso and Planck

This weekend I heard an NPR story about two stolen Picassos, and it being 100 years since Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, they did a related story on the painting and its importance as the beginning of Modern art. You can imagine how the story went:
1) visionary creates something new
2) it's soundly rejected by a powerful establishment
3) years pass,
4) and magically it is the cornerstone of an entire movement.

That's how we tell stories of innovation, whether in the arts or in science and technology. We attempt to understand it in the context of an innovator versus an establishment. It's interesting to think about what actually happens in step 3 that makes the end result possible. An artistic movement is by definition a number of artists creating related works. Clearly many other artists (probably young at the time) found Picasso's cubism to be a powerful tool to express what they wanted to say.
Change the names and dates and you could tell the story of almost every scientific theory in the same way. Einstein's relativity is the most popular one to tell in this way, but Planck is a particularly good one as well. Not only did other scientists really dislike his introduction of an arbitrary constant to represent the lumpy nature of light in photon form, he personally hated his method as much as any of them, "... an act of despair ... I was ready to sacrifice any of my previous convictions about physics". He really expected the constant to turn out to be zero after all was said and done, but it wasn't zero, it was h. That didn't stop numerous other eminent scientists from taking his results and then setting h equal to zero. So he's the innovator, and a part of the establishment hating his own theory, and then years pass and he's a part of the establishment that found his theory to be a powerful tool to describe the universe (bonus: he still hated it).
It all seems to boil down to what's hidden in step 3. The realization by a number of people that the innovation is useful. This is where the interesting philosophical questions pop up. Does every idea get heard by enough open-minded, gifted people to ensure it has a chance to be an innovation? Is the increasingly interconnected nature of our society keeping us all on the same page to our detriment? Does the fact that we have immediate access to other people's thoughts and work mean that we are now more likely to think about the same things and therefore the scope of our thought as a society has narrowed? That might be the unpleasant truth of the information age. Humanity has fewer total thoughts than it used to. What might be even more unpleasant is the possibility that humanity is better served by narrowing our thoughts in this way. Maybe we make more progress by thinking very hard about a few things than by thinking more "softly" "less densely" about many more.


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