Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Definition for Genius: Evitable Progress

When discussing progress, either in science or technology or some other field, we usually give credit to the people that first discovered or invented something new. Columbus first discovered America, Newton first discovered the laws of gravity, Darwin first discovered the law of evolution, and so on. We call these people visionaries and geniuses, because they thought of something that none else had thought before them.

The problem I always had with this definition is that most progress is inevitable. If Columbus hadn't discovered America, someone else would have done it after him. And Newton first understood how gravity works, but does that mean that we wouldn't have laws for gravity if it weren't for him? And surely enough, if Darwin hadn't traveled so much to figure out evolution, with the discovery of DNA (albeit much later) someone else would have finally understood what was going on.

People like to compare such visionaries, trying to figure out who had the most impact to society. More recently, the popular CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, and Dennis Ritchie, creator of UNIX and the C programming language, died. The media covered much more extensively the death of Jobs than the death of Ritchie, even though without Ritchie's work there wouldn't be an iPhone in the first place.

However I don't think that's the correct measure of excellence. If you go down this path then the most influential people are the ones that invented the technologies from which most other technologies originate from. Surely if Boole hadn't invented the Boolean Algebra, used in all digital components, nor Ritchie neither Jobs would have fulfilled their own ideas. And then you have to keep going further back in time, to the first mathematicians, to the Ancient Greeks and Babylonians, and ultimately to the guy(?) that discovered how to handle fire, because you wouldn't be here now reading electronic text if it weren't for him.

Or would you?

I think that most progress is inevitable. Surely someone sooner or later would have discovered fire, and I am fairly certain that mathematics, and physics, and most science and technology would eventually evolve the way they did. It is just a matter of time.

Without any disrespect for the work of Newton, Darwin, Ritchie, or any other pioneer in his or her field, for me a true genius is someone that invented or discovered something new, without there being an obvious need for progress.

I am now going to provide three such examples.

My first example is Steve Jobs, and I am going to focus only on the iPhone. The iPhone didn't need to exist. I can surely imagine a parallel universe with the earth exactly as we know it, but without an iPhone. Cell phones would exist, and smartphones would exist. But iPhone-like smartphones, with cute icons and user-friendly interfaces and App stores maybe would have never existed. This wasn't necessarily inevitable progress, that someone would have eventually thought. Maybe in that world Nokia and RIM are still the major players in the phone business.

My second example is Richard Feynman. Up until his time, there were two ways to describe Quantum Mechanics, one using wave functions and one using matrices. Both were accurate, difficult to manage, and technically correct. Then Feynman came and proposed a new, third formulation, the so-called path-integral approach (that each particle can be correctly described by assuming it follows all the possible paths it can take simultaneously). This formulation eventually evolved into the famous Feynman diagrams, which is a simple and fun way that theoretical physicists today understand particle physics. Again, this formulation by Feynman didn't need to exist. It wasn't obvious that there could be another way. We could have been living today in a universe where physicists still use clunky wavefunctions and matrices to understand the natural processes. It would be ugly, but thanks to Feynman's work we are much better now.

My third example is Einstein. Einstein first formulated the special theory of relativity, which explains the motion of objects that move near the speed of light. This theory would inevitably have been discovered eventually, as there were an increasing number of evidence that showed that our understanding of the laws of motion wasn't correct. Everyone knew something new should come along to explain everything, and Einstein was the first that figured it out.

But then there's Einstein's general theory of relativity, probably the single most astonishing intellectual event in human history. General relativity didn't need to be. There was virtually no evidence at the time that Newton's theory of gravity was wrong, and no one was looking at a new theory for gravity. Then Einstein, almost single-handedly, figured out a completely new and original explanation of how gravity works. His theory was much different than anything that had been around at the time, and even today remains state of the art. If it wasn't for Einstein, most likely no one else would have figured out general relativity, as there is no immediate need for it, even today. It wasn't inevitable progress; we would be living in the dark, without even realizing it. And yet today general relativity is acknowledged as the most perfect theory of physics.

And this is, to me, what a true genius is.