Thursday, June 3, 2010

Moments of Genius

By his own estimate, Thomas Edison tested 3000 theories for electric light before he came up with one that worked. It was this epic perseverance that led him to famously observe, “genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” It is tempting to believe that this means tireless dedication can bring anyone to within a single percentage point of genius, but, alas, this misses the point. What Edison really meant is that, while brilliance doesn’t go far without hard work, brilliance is nonetheless the vital magic ingredient. The solitary miraculous percentage point is really what changes the world, as Edison’s amazing life attests.

Moments of Genius is a series of six interviews running on The interviews with a range of modern-day Edisons delve into the back stories of great discoveries and earth-shattering insights, and tease out the elusive eureka moments.

One interview is with Leonard Kleinrock, inventor of packet switching and a “Father of the Internet”. As a young researcher at UCLA in the late 1960s, Kleinrock was part of the team that tried to get two computers – one in LA, the other in the Bay Area – to talk to each other for the first time, using the technology that would make the Internet possible. Running a 400 mile cable between them, Kleinrock and his colleagues attempt to convey the first ever email, beginning with the word “log-in”. This is how Kleinrock describes it:

So we typed the L, and we say, “Did you get the L?” He says, “Got the L”.”Did you get the O”? “Got the O”. “Got the “G”? Crash! The SRI computer crashed. So the first message ever on the Internet was “Lo”. As in “Lo and Behold.” We couldn’t have anticipated a shorter, more prophetic, more succinct message than “Lo.”
Another interview subject is David Ho, the man most responsible for the successful treatment of HIV-AIDS over the past 15 years. His background in mathematics and physics allowed him to develop the cocktail treatments that beat the virus at its own game, and save millions of lives.

What stands out from all of the interviews is that breakthrough innovation rarely emerges from committee. It is far more likely to be the handiwork of individuals or small, united teams who are unashamedly obsessed with solving a problem and simply won’t stop until they crack it.

Unconventional, unpredictable, fiercely individualistic – there are the inventors, innovators and problem-solvers that change the world. In the face of complex challenges like oil spills and climate change, people wonder whether human society has met a point at which the scale and complexity of problems have out-paced our ability to innovate our way out of them.

As long as Edison’s one-percent rule persists – and as long as great minds like Kleinrock, Ho and others refuse to take no for an answer – then radical optimism is surely the most rational state of mind.