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Design and Discovery

By Stephen M. Samuel

They say Archimedes invented calculus 1500 years before it was reinvented by Sir Issac Newton. Fortunately, enough of his original writings survived the years such that we modern folks could examine them and gain insight into his thinking. It’s fun to imagine how life would be different had human kind paid more attention to Archimedes. Many of us know about the inventions that to this day bear his name, such as the Archimedean screw and the Archimedean principle of buoyancy.  Had we as a species understood the principles of calculus 1500 years earlier, I believe things would be very different. Not necessarily better, but different. Archimedes was too far ahead of his time. He was so far ahead that when he invented – or should I say discovered – these advanced mathematical techniques, there weren’t enough people around who could understand how amazing they were. When Archimedes was killed, his knowledge was lost for centuries.

Archimedes

This all leads to an important realization. Math and mathematical techniques exist, whether humans find them or not. At any time some incredible visionary, without the help of the research group, the super computer, or the multi-million dollar lab, can uncover this method of doing things that can change the world. A good design has the same property or perhaps is just a manifestation of the same exact underlying truth. A modern bicycle is an amazing invention whose main advantage comes from the main component, the wheel. The wheel exists in nature, as anyone who’s ever thrown a log underneath something to move it along knows. It’s a pretty sure bet that whoever was the first human to use a wheel or wheel-like device was not alone. Had he or she never been born, surely someone else would have been the first, and probably in a similar time frame. I imagine that the first use of a wheel was accidental. Perhaps someone was sitting on a log on a hill, and it started to roll or something like that. Sooner or later, someone thought to try it again and do it on purpose.

I think a lot of inventions and discoveries are like that. An accident allows a certain in-sight.  The incident is recorded and repeated. The method is refined and put to use. If you are trying to invent a new hand held device, perhaps the next iPod or Kindle, it’s instructive to know that the actual design exists already; we as inventors and designers just have to uncover it. Sometimes we must allow random to be our guide. In fact, if random is to be harnessed, we must find a way to encourage it. We must find a way to let our wonderful processes and organized innovation methods to lapse momentarily and let the “crazy” in. In this way, we may happen upon the amazingly cool thing that we never would have thought of otherwise.

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