Friday, March 26, 2010

There is nothing new under the sun.

Isaac Newton v. Gottfried Leibniz

I really hate it when ideas I have turn out to have already been done by other people. It twists the thrill of invention into the agony of knowing that you are not unique, or thoughtful, or insightful, and probably just don't remember that you were watching "Histories Biggest Catapults" the night before. Damn it, I was sure I was the first to think of launching heavy rocks at buildings to smash them into a pulp. Anyway, one could take some solace in knowing that many of histories great ideas have been co-discovered.

Take, for example, the legendary dual discovery of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz was working on a paper on differential calculus when he was shown unpublished papers by Newton, who had beaten him to it by a good decade. Leibniz maintained that he'd come up with it without hearing anything from Newton, but contemporary scholars had a hard time trusting someone with such a ridiculous haircut.

Darwin's theory of natural selection was independently arrived at by Alfred Russell Wallace. Ol' Chuck began formulating a method for how species evolve after returning from his leisurely cruise of the Galapagos. Darwin worked on his theory for 20 years until he found out Wallace had arrived at the same conclusions he had. I'd like to imagine the smug look of satisfaction on Darwin's face as he broke it to poor Wallace that the Texas School Board would never even bother to omit him from their textbooks.

The only problem with these simultaneous discoveries is that they're too simultaneous. If you really want an embarrassing co-discovery, you have to have a little more space in between. Consider the work of John Smeaton, civil engineer. He had a breakthrough in using quick lime to make concrete. Concrete was a strong, cheap, pourable building material that allowed for the construction of a diverse range of structures. Which is why the Romans used it extensively, all the way back to at least 100 B.C., when the engineer Vitruvius wrote down a recipe for concrete comparable in strength to what we use now. But, the secret of concrete was lost for around 1300 years, until Mr. Smeaton brought humanity back to where they were before Visigoths ran wild throughout the Western Roman Empire. Probably with some kind of device that could hurl big rocks at those concrete structures... Damn you, Visigoths!