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The Instrument Makers | The Christensen Institute

When we think about how great theories are built, one pattern seems to pop up repeatedly: breakthroughs are preceded by the insight into one (n=1) insight. The key observation of an anomaly that disabused us of a false assumption leads us to a far deeper causal understanding.

I’ll illustrate with a simple history of astronomy. For millennia, the theory of astronomy was informed by data provided by our eyes. The human eye could observe celestial objects with great acuity, and with great patience and record keeping the recognition of patterns in movements allowed the building of a vast database of predictions about the universe. We see this in many societies around the world: from Nordic seafaring navigators to Mayan calendars to Greek scholars. They all built predictive models and associated mythologies around the observable night sky.

These models included a construct called the calendar, the horoscope, navigation charts and even rare event predictors such as eclipses. Computing devices were even built to allow the calculation of these events by laypersons rather than a priestly class.

Our eyes remained the observational instruments underpinning all these theories. The world (and otherworld) view was informed and repeatably tested through eyesight. It wasn’t until the technology of lenses was developed (initially for a completely different purpose) that new instruments could be used to augment the eye.

These telescopes (and their brethren, the microscopes) changed many theories profoundly. The information that optical telescopes could convey allowed the observation of anomalies (e.g. planets) which changed the earth-centric view of the universe which, in turn, challenged much of the balance of power in society.

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  • http://about.me/gregrobertson Greg Robertson

    Reminds me of the famous Steve Jobs’s quote. “Computers are like a bicycle for our minds.”

  • GlennC777

    Another way to look at it is that the sum of human understanding is something like all the possible permutations of existing ideas. If you start with n=#of ideas, then the sum of all understanding is something like n!.

    This is more an analogy than strictly correct, since not all permutations are valid, some ideas are much more constructive than others, and some knowledge is the result of more than two ideas in combination.

    Adding one major new idea, though, allows that single new idea, whether a telescope, a smart phone, or some non-technological innovation such as centralized banking, to interact with every previously existing idea, resulting in a new knowledge sum analogous to (n+1)!. A theoretically huge increase.

    Thus every major new idea gains increasing power as the sum of human understanding evolves, and as a result, that understanding increases exponentially.

    • http://www.asymco.com Horace Dediu

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