I'll start - though I guess I did in my welcome statement. As an empiricist, I think that curiosity and imagination are the engine of the first step in the scientific method - getting an idea (or creating an hypothesis.) And, once a new principle or theory is developed and validated, then finding useful applications goes back to the innovators and artists as well.

You should know that I honor Erasmus Darwin as much as his famous Grandson - who, indeed, was a poet among many other things. A contemporary of Lamarck, he wrote a very important poem The Temple of Nature before Charles was born that was a precursor to his Grandson's ideas. He was a hero to Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth and the other great romantic poets who glorified the richness of nature and our place in it.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote Eureka in 1848 - predicting something very close to the Big Bang - far more specific than any Nostradamus quatrain. Van Gogh and Monet (after Cezanne) taught us about light in a way that, along with the ancient art of weaving, and tapestry making, led us to the pixels on the screen that you are reading from right now.

As all anthropologists know, we have pottery and poetry to thank for the little we know about many ancient cultures. Architecture, medicine, music, and mathematics speak to us from the distant past and point the way to the unknown future we are, right this moment, busy building.

From the first person to notice that a shadow, or a reflection, or a footprint in the sand, was an image that mimicked reality - and learned to deliberately follow suit, to whoever figures out high temperature super-conductivity, cold fusion, or cheap, switch grass ethanol production - I love it all.

I love it because, we don't have a purpose in any god's plan like a hammer has a purpose; or a nail. Purpose emerges in us as a new aspect of evolution. It emerges from our minds, our curiosity, and imaginations as an extension of our sexuality and survival instinct and transforms into an adventurer's need to rise to challenges of our own creation. I love it because six billion minds, once free enough from the shackles of ancient inhibitions, can advance and progress and not only realize that the stars are not pinholes in the dome of heaven - but destinations for our posterity to explore.  

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi Howard,

Nice post. Soaring prose and lofty ideals.

I kept thinking about creativity, more so invention and innovation than art, and how that creativity is built upon prior invention and innovation. I wondered: What are examples of inventions or innovations that did NOT rely on prior ones? I'm talking TRULY original ideas here.

The wheel leaps to mind, as an example of invention, and man-made fire comes to mind as an example of innovation. But I quickly run out of clear-cut examples. The atlatl or woomera (spear throwers) came to mind but I quickly realized they were preceded by spears (duh!). The sling is probably a better candidate. What about the needle?

I guess all manner of inventions and innovations can be proposed as truly original ideas that don't borrow from prior ideas but, it seems to me, they become exceedingly rare the more recent they are. I suspect that by the time the historic era began in Mesopotamia, most truly original ideas had already been discovered despite the absence of any kind of formal logic or science. Sure there were later innovations but they were few and far between (the arch, for example).

Einstein's theories of relativity were advanced from the ideas of others. Galileo's telescope depended on lenses (is the lens an original idea?). Every invention and innovation I can think of, since the Renaissance, borrows from prior ideas.

My question is: What's the most recent innovation or invention that does not borrow or adapt from prior ideas?
I might take a guess at that one and say the transistor or diode. The diode (a device which allows current flow in only one direction) was probably the first solid state device to use semiconductor principles to emulate the function of a vacuum tube, though with a completely different mechanism. The transistor took that even further with the seemingly unlikely proposition that a back-biased P-N junction could conduct current and more, that that said conduction could be controlled by the forward current flow of an associated P-N junction. All of a sudden, the function of an amplifying vacuum tube, a relatively massive device, was now contained in a can less than a tenth the size. From that was eventually spawned Jack Kilby's idea of integrated circuits and a reduction in scale of the size and power requirement of transistors which vacuum tubes could never have achieved and which continues to this day.
This is an excellent avenue of discussion here. What is the true nature of design re: collective and cumulative applied knowledge plus 'conceptual mutations' (accidents of thought or inspired observation).

Remember those 'mouthwash' strips that are solid squares of mouthwash that 'met' in your mouth? I don't know the real story, but I have fun imagining how things like that happened. For example, a bachelor - who lives in relative squalor because he's a rather ubiquitous form of 'pig' ( a product of a sexist culture) lands a big date, discovers he's out of mouthwash, but notices that some has dried on his sink. He scrapes it off - and, voila, innovation at work. Probably not what happened, but plausible. Think about ubiquitous things like the toothpick, the paper clip, the refrigerator magnet, ... these aren't the products of R&D labs - but they are everywhere.

BTW - I'm thinking that the 'lens' was one of those inspired observations. But I'd love to know the story. Did someone take a gander through a sheep's eyeball to see how it might work? Dawkins speaks of 'designoids' - the products of evolution such as the eye. Oftentimes, design comes from mimicking designoids.
Don't forget the 'problem' of discovery and interpretation. Many things are discovered accidentally (penicillin, if I remember correctly), and discoveries then have to be investigated or interpreted to give them a context or application.
The problem is that, of course, 'discoveries' can be wrong (as indeed can inventions and reasoning) - hence we have, for instance, religions, all based on what is construed as evidence. Who knows what people will think of our intellectual and moral standards in a few hundred years time (assuming we haven't all been drowned, frozen or baked by then, or just died of planet poisoning)...
I think moveable type (invented a couple times at great distance and time apart) qualifies as a pretty sui generis invention. Yes, there were woodblocks, printmaking, etc., but flexible type unleashed the flood (no, not that one.)
Yes - Gutenberg's story is fascinating. I learned it from James Burke's excellent series The Day The Universe Changed (10 episodes - I'll post them here in a bit) about ideas that radically changed the way we (western civilization) looked at the world.

The Catholic Church was into selling indulgences (get out of sin free cards) and, for the less affluent, there were a variety of pilgrimages that offered a chance to climb many stone steps on your knees to receive your indulgence at the top. Of course, the local mafia ran the concessions where you could buy religious trinkets and whatnot as souvenirs.

Well, it turns out that a metal smith named Gutenberg borrowed money from these guys to make and sell such trinkets at such a pilgrimage and got the date wrong by a year. Looking to save his life, he told his 'investors' to keep mum about this amazing invention he had in mind and to give him more time. It was under this kind of pressure that the West got movable metal type.

The first book printed was, of course, the Bible. But the profit came from printing - you guessed it - indulgences.

Ironically, the Enlightenment and The Age of Reason have a great deal to thank Mr. Gutenberg for. Voltaire, Camus, Locke, Paine, Franklin etc. made good use of this new mass media outlet.
Love James Burke. His previous show, Connections, was a favorite of mine. I think that's the one where he demonstrated the effectiveness of a two-handed sword on a side of beef. Yikes. And he could barely even swing the sword. A Conan-type would make it that much scarier.
Been re-watching this - same episode he shows a dummy suitcase nuke. How have we survived thus far?
Tight international controls on suitcases, I think.
Lmfao - yeah - but what about underwear?
I don't think underwear nukes are possible. Well, maybe if you eat the right kind of hot sauce.
Morbid obesity may provide sufficient capacity for critical mass ...


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