Book offers ways to develop world-shaking ideas

Last Updated: Oct 04, 2010, 12:52 PM IST

London: "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" (Riverhead Books, $26.95), by Steven Johnson: Great new ideas don`t always arrive suddenly like those symbolic light bulbs over the heads of comic-strip characters.

Charles Darwin was 27 when he described in his journal how "myriads of architects" — tiny marine polyps, to put it less poetically — leave their skeletons piled up behind them to form a coral reef. They "separate the atoms of carbonate of lime one by one from the foaming breakers," he wrote, "and unite them into a symmetrical structure" over millions of years.

Darwin was 50 when "On the Origin of Species" was published. It explains his theory of natural selection — how organisms well adapted to their environment can survive, as the polyps do, generation after generation. Steven Johnson, author of "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation," calls that theory "the intellectual summit of the 19th century."

Today, 150 years later, a Silicon Valley firm is developing a project using this background to reduce the atmosphere`s load of carbon, which many environmentalists see as a big element in global warming. The problem is to mimic and greatly speed the way coral is formed.

The process would use that carbonate of lime from those foaming breakers, pumping up the saltwater with carbon dioxide "like some oversized, salty club soda" — as Johnson describes it. The result would be a building material to replace Portland cement and imprison the carbon.

Some of Johnson`s recommendations for cultivating ideas are far from new: Go for a walk, learn from your mistakes.

"The patterns are simple," he writes, "but followed together they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts."

Other recommendations are less obvious and can be hard to follow, but Johnson analyzes them in ways that are sometimes startling and always well worth reading about. His wide range of examples includes the use by Miles Davis of an ancient Greek musical mode in his compositions and the codification of double-entry bookkeeping by an Italian friar in 1494.

He urges people with ideas to keep copious notes and index them, a task made easier by the computer. One inventory of Darwin`s notebooks, he reports, found 1,383 pages on geology and 368 pages on zoology. It seems like excellent advice but one that calls for strong willpower to follow.

The effort of note-taking has its rewards: When browsing through your notes, you may happen on a neglected thought that plugs an unnoticed gap in your best new idea.

Johnson is strong on discussing your ideas with as many intelligent people as possible — including people with no expert knowledge on them. With that bit of counsel comes another: Live in a populated city where there are more people to share your thoughts with.

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