How the Impossible Becomes Possible
Arthur C. Clark insisted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Yet most of us have to live in a world of practicalities. Growing up means that fantasies must give way to realities. We learn to favor probabilities over possibilities.
In other words, we learn to be reasonable. Yet as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The modern world is one of the visceral abstract, in which unlikely ideas lead to important breakthroughs and seemingly useless things can become useful indeed. It is, as Marie Curie put it, not the practical men, but the dreamers who create new paradigms. While hard facts define today, new value is created only when the impossible becomes possible.
A Boy Riding on a Bolt of Lightning
As a boy, Albert Einstein liked to imagine what it would be like to ride on a bolt of lightning. When he grew older and began to study Maxwell’s equations, he learned that the speed of light was was supposed to be constant, never going faster or slower than exactly 299,792,458 meters per second.
This new knowledge created serious problems for his lightning bolt riding fantasy. According to Newton, if he shined a light while going at the speed of light, then according to Newton’s laws, the light would be going twice as fast, violating Maxwell’s laws. Clearly, something had to give. One of the two principles had to be violated.
Through some mathematical gymnastics, Einstein found that it was Newton’s gospel that was found wanting. The speed of light is constant, but time and space are relative. He then embarked on a new fantasy about what it would be like to ride on an elevator in space and came up with a theory even more far reaching. Gravity, it turns out, works not through attraction, but by bending space-time.
While Einstein himself never became a practical man, his dreams changed the world. Today, just about all of our magical technologies, from the iPhone to GPS navigation, rely on his theories to function. Even the most sober and reasonable people, as they shuffle between meetings and peruse financial reports, have Einsteins boyhood fantasies to thank.
By the mid 1920’s, Einstein was no longer a youthful wunderkind, but had entered middle age as an elder statesman among physicists and began to regret the revolution that he had wrought. Younger scientists had used his earlier work on light quanta to build a new conception of the universe that was based on probabilities rather than absolutes.
This led to a series of famous debates between Einstein and Niels Bohr. “God does not throw dice,” Einstein said. “Einstein, stop telling God what to do,” Bohr retorted and won the day. Einstein was frustrated, but rather than sulk, he went to work devising an experiment that would prove the quantum theorists wrong.
The idea, in brief, was that if the quantum theorists were right, then particles could become entangled and matter could be instantly teleported, which everyone knew (or thought) was impossible. However, researchers at IBM successfully carried out the experiment in 1993, dispelling Einstein’s final objection.
Since then, other scientists have teleported photons as much as 143 km and last year it was reported that the US government has been operating a quantum Internet based on Einstein’s idea for several years. While still a long way off from commercialization, it has the potential to operate with a level of security and speed that many consider impossible today.
Web of Knowledge
When Tim Berners-Lee was a child, he was obsessed by a book called Enquire Within Upon Everything, which had handy information about all sorts of things, from rules of etiquette to tips for getting stains out of clothes. The idea that information of all kinds could be connected intuitively and made useful intrigued him to no end.
After graduating from Oxford, Berners-Lee accepted a fellowship at CERN, and created a computer program, fittingly called ENQUIRE, to help the scientists there to share information. Convinced that the idea could go further, he tried to get a number of people interested in developing the technology, but had no takers. It just didn’t seem practical.
Frustrated, but still determined, he sat down in 1989 and created three protocols, HTTP, URI and HTML, which were even less scrutable to most people than ENQUIRE was. So he and his collaborator, Robert Cailliau, came up with a more marketable name: The World Wide Web.
Although he never patented the idea, today Berners-Lee serves as Director of the W3C consortium that governs the Web. There, he works with a wide array of businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations to develop new standards so that even as technology changes, everyone can continue to “enquire within.”
Organizing the World’s Information
One night in 1996, Larry Page awoke from a dream in the middle of the night with the idea that you could download the entire Web and just keep the links. Those links, he thought, could tell you a lot about the World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee had created. Inspired by the idea, he spent the rest of the night scribbling down notes to see if it could work.
He soon recruited his friend Sergey Brin to help him out. Soon after, the pair realized that ranking web pages by their links could create a much better search engine, an idea that he insists to this day wasn’t even on his radar at the time. After they created Google, they designed the company so that others could pursue dreams too.
In his commencement address at the University of Michigan, Page encouraged the graduates to do the same:
You never lose a dream, it just incubates as a hobby,” he said. Many things that people labor hard to do now, like cooking, cleaning, and driving will require much less human time in the future. That is, if we ‘have a healthy disregard for the impossible’ and actually build new solutions.
Page further points out in the forward to How Google Works that Google’s later projects, such as Gmail and Android, started out as pipe dreams too and insists that real change is revolutionary rather than evolutionary. That’s why Google continually makes big, speculative bets on the future.
3 Principles for Creating New Paradigms
In Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku describes three types of impossibilities. The first are things that we just haven’t figured out how to make work, like large scale teleportation. The second are things like time travel that involve concepts we still do not understand. The third involves things like perpetual motion that would violate the known laws of physics.
What’s new and different about our current age is how quickly the seeming impossible becomes not only possible, but part of our everyday life. Things like a quantum internet or self-driving cars that seemed like pipe dreams a decade ago are now realities. In a decade or two, we’ll all be using them.
While there is no hard and fast rules for creating completely new paradigms, three principles are fairly clear:
1. The Slow Hunch: In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes the starting point for a big idea as a slow hunch. Innovators start out with an idea that interests them, which they pursue over a long period of time, without really knowing what, if anything, it will amount to.
Einstein, for example, was thinking about riding on a bolt of lightning for ten years and then about riding in an elevator through space for another ten. Both ideas started out as flights of fancy, but ended up changing the world. When Larry Page awoke from his dream, he had no intention of creating a search engine. Google began as just an idea that interested him.
2. Synthesizing across Domains: While we like to think of great ideas coming from mad scientists working in isolation who, in a flash of insight, one day shout “Eureka!,” the truth is exactly the opposite. Important innovations arise from collaboration. Tim Berners-Lee had Robert Cailliau, Larry Page had Sergei Brin and even Einstein had a group he regularly bounced ideas off of.
The reason is that true breakthroughs come from synthesizing information across domains. If a problem is difficult enough, it needs to borrow from multiple fields of expertise. Innovation, more than anything else, is combination. That’s why Mark Zuckerberg has said that the most important part of starting a company is forming a good team.
No one has all the answers, but as the saying goes, “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”
3. Solving Problems that People Care about: Tim Berners-Lee’s ENQUIRE program became the Web because he wanted to solve the world’s, not just CERN’s, problems. Google exists because Page and Brin saw that their “hobby” had practical consequences. Even Einstein, although a theorist, was resolving a crisis that was widely discussed in the physics world at the time.
Although many might have seen these problems as esoteric and abstract, they were exciting problems within their respective communities. That’s what attracted other great minds to take the initial mission, make it their own and create a new reality. Leaders, in the final analysis, are those who attract followers.
That’s what separates true innovators from idle dreamers. The impossible becomes possible not just through a flash of inspiration, but from the discovery of new truths and inspiring others to see their potential. We need to master the art of the shift.
Or, as Nelson Mandela put it, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”
image credit: environment.nationalgeographic.com
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