Darwin: blogging and twittering in the 19th century?

26 01 2009

The Evolution RevolutionYou will be hearing about Darwin a lot this year, as 2009 marks 200 years of his birth and 150 years of “The Origin of Species”. Regardless of what you think about Darwin the scientist, there are lots to learn from Darwin the man.

Last summer, I visited “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was the first time I saw him not as a naturalist, but as a person. You still can catch the exhibition till April 19 in the Natural History Museum in London, renamed “Darwin – Big Idea” (see the slideshow for a taste of what you’ll find there).

The handwritten notes and letters caught my attention immediately, as they ranged from the deeply scientific (the famous “I think” sketch with the evolutionary tree) to the trivial and mundane (Fanny Owen, Darwin’s first girlfriend, asking “Why did you not come home this Christmas? I suppose some dear little Beetles kept you away!”).

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post wondering what it would be like if folks like Darwin, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King had blogs. I didn’t imagine back then that Darwin actually had the next best thing available to him: a notebook, a pen, and the discipline to write almost daily about whatever crossed his mind.

Darwin left a huge written record in books, articles, notebooks and more than 14,000 letters. Looking at them, I can’t help but see the similarities with the Social Media tools we use today. See for example one of his notes aboard the Beagle:

Darwin Manuscripts

I can almost see a “Powered by WordPress.com” at the bottom of his entries 🙂 .

If you keep digging, you’ll find also his journal:

Darwin Manuscripts

If only he had Twitter and GPS, eh? I would follow him for sure.

Bad jokes aside, I find fascinating that you can know so much about a person who was born 200 years ago. It’s been said that “thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time”. Darwin was doing that back in 1822 at age 12!

So, if you think you know Charles, take a look at the “10 Fun Facts About Darwin” at Neatorama.com. You’ll find that not only he described plenty of new species, he ate several of them too, including armadillos, iguanas and tortoises. And that he once wrote that a wife was “better than a dog” for companion. Not exactly the most romantic thing to say about your significant other, but geeks will always be geeks, I guess.

If you want to learn more about the man, I highly recommend BBC’s “In Our Time” Darwin series, and also Darwin’s Legacy, a lecture series from Stanford University at iTunes U. You won’t be disappointed.

Santos-Dumont, The Wright Brothers and Innovation

17 07 2008

This is a post I wrote long time ago in my internal blog at work and decided to publish here too, as it seems to still be current

Unless you’re Brazilian or an aviation enthusiast, chances are that you have never heard about Alberto Santos-Dumont. Most people in the world would not hesitate in saying that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. However, some claim that “the only witnesses to the Wright brothers flights (…) were typically close friends and family”, while “Santos-Dumont made his flights in public, often accompanied by the scientific elite of the time, then gathered in Paris” (read more about it here and here). The picture above (from Wikimedia Commons) shows one of his flights in the Bagatelle field (close to the Eiffel Tower). PBS aired “Wings of Madness”, a good documentary about Santos-Dumont, last year. Here are some excerpts from the program description:

In the early 1900s, the most acclaimed celebrity in Europe, and arguably the world, was a fashionable, frail, Brazilian-born aviator named Alberto Santos-Dumont. (…)Tiring of balloons, Santos built the 14bis, an ungainly tail-first flying machine that nevertheless made the first powered airplane flight in Europe in 1906. At that time, the Wright brothers’s secret early flights were widely disbelieved, so Santos and his adoring public were convinced he was the first to fly. When Wilbur made his triumphant European tour in 1908, Santos had to face the terrible realization that the Wrights were the true pioneers after all. But just before his long slide into illness began, he designed an exquisite new airplane out of bamboo: the Demoiselle, or Damselfly. One of the classic aircraft of the pioneering era, it was the true forerunner of today’s ultralight planes.

An interesting aside from this discussion is that the Gartner’s hype cycle around emerging technologies was already in full display mode 100 years ago: Dumont went from the technology trigger all the way to the plateau of productivity in a decade and was very hyped for a while to the point that the local Dayton Daily News in 1903 stated that the Wright brothers were emulating Dumont (Orville and Wilbur lived in Dayton):

In any case, the true answer for the question “Who invented the airplane” is: none of them. Or better yet, all of them: Orville, Wilbur, Alberto and several others pioneers, all should be credited with the invention of the airplane. We tend to like simple answers, and so we just accept that Gutenberg invented printing, Thomas Edison the light bulb and Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. In reality, all inventions and findings in the world are composites of ideas and experiments run by several people. That’s why I strongly believe that our current models governing intellectual property are outdated and preventing us from unleashing the true power of innovation. Our copyright laws are way too strict, and patents many times are inhibitors, not drivers, for new inventions.

Note that I’m not advocating that all IP protection should be dropped. However, the big accomplishment that should be awarded is not the idea, but the execution. Ideas are cheap, good implementation is the real challenge. This concept applies even in the case of artistic works like music, movies or books. Just imagine what would happen if everything was governed by a Creative Commons-like license, where anybody, everybody could share, remix and reuse whatever they want. Often times we see songs that were very flat in their original recording to become masterpieces with some novel interpretation. If we lower the barriers, even disasters could be rescued. Can you improve on “The Godfather” I and II? Unlikely. “The Godfather
III”, on the other side, had some good ideas ruined by a few really lame ones. The potential for a great movie was there, but it was never realized. You’re just left wondering “what if”. Of course, movies are not that easy to tweak, but scripts are. I bet that the last three Star Wars movies could benefit from better writing.

It would be interesting as a social experiment to establish a 5-year moratorium on all IP-related claims and see what would happen: chaos and the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it or an explosion in innovation. At a minimum, this approach would help us to find out how much control is actually needed to foster innovation.

On innovation, barnacles and Darwin

29 01 2008

Two weeks ago, while visiting the St Joseph Market in Barcelona, I found this thing that promptly caught my attention:

I thought: live “percebes”? WTH is a percebe? And why is this thing so expensive? Then I took a closer look:

Naturally, I googled it some time later, and found the following:

The percebe is a delicious, edible gooseneck barnacle. Seafood lovers proclaim the succulent lusciousness of its slippery, slurpable innards make percebes earth’s best-tasting seafood.

It didn’t sound very appealing to me, and I did not know what a barnacle was anyway. You know, when English is not your first language, barnacle is not a word that’s likely to show up in a casual conversation or in your ESL classes. Of course, I then googled barnacle and found that it was simply what in Brazilian Portuguese is known as craca. My immediate reaction was: What???!!! Some people eat cracas and say that’s the best-tasting seafood on the planet? It’s like my mother saying the best part of the chicken is the neck. (I never actually tried it, but I still don’t believe her).

All this googleness finally paid off, as it led me to find by accident that barnacles played a pivotal role in Darwin’s breakthrough evolutionary theory, as described in the book Darwin and the Barnacle (by the way, Google Book Search rocks!). According to Wikipedia, Darwin was the first to fully study and classify barnacles. No surprise there. I used to tease a friend of mine for studying the behaviour of sea urchins (well, they basically don’t do much of what regular folks call behaviour), but barnacles are even worse, as most of them spend their lives cemented to a rock and barely move. If I were to choose a species to describe, barnacles would probably be very low in my list.

What is really interesting in this story was that it took Darwin more than 20 years between formulating his theory and publishing it. He was a 50-year-old man when he finally published The Origin of Species. Contrary to Thomas Edison, who seemed to come up with new things every 5 minutes (come on, 1,093 patents in his name?), Darwin had one major innovative idea, and it took him almost a lifetime to develop it. But when he finally published it, it changed the whole history of life sciences.

Innovation comes in different sizes, packages and frequencies. I can only imagine a guy like Darwin working for a big corporation today and writing in his annual performance review: I’m almost there; I just need 12 more years to finalize this idea of mine. The other thing that caught my attention is Darwin’s independent thinking, and his openness to change his mind when faced with facts invalidating his beliefs:

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

He wrote that late in his life, and it’s refreshing to see that even after all his accomplishments, he was still keeping an open stance and an inquiring mind. How’s that for a role model?