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Book Review by Tomasz Artur Mielniczuk: Where Good Ideas Come From

  • May 30, 2024

Tomasz Artur Mielniczuk HeadshotEditor’s Note: This is the fifth book review we are publishing as part of our Get Paid to Read contest. Last week we published a review of one of my favorite books, Superforecasting by Dr. Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, which was reviewed by Adam Pascarella.

This week, Tomasz Artur Mielniczuk reviews Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. Tomasz is a self-taught value investor who started investing following the 2008 crash. He also simultaneously taught himself English by reading books with the help of a dictionary to translate words. I have collaborated with him on this review.

Where Good Ideas Come FromWhere Good Ideas Come From starts with an introduction of Charles Darwin, Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber and the rule of 10/10. The rule of 10/10 describes the time needed to develop a new technology and how long it will take to bring the technology to the market.

Steven Johnson introduces the idea of the “long zoom”, which involves looking at problems from different scales. A long zoom perspective allows us to examine the intricate connections that impact various levels of a system, from down in the weeds to the broad environment.

Darwin drew parallels between the teeming ecosystem of a coral reef with the kind of serendipitous innovation big cities foster.

He then introduces the idea of an hourglass, which is divided into 2 parts: nature and culture. Descending from the top of the hourglass, to the center, there is global evolution, ecosystems, DNA, etc. From the center we shift down from individual ideas to organizations and global information networks.

Dall-E's Attempt at Recreating Steven Johnson's Hourglass
Dall-E’s Attempt at Recreating Steven Johnson’s Hourglass

The book discusses Stephane Tarnier, a French obstetrician, who comes up with an idea to improve the survival rate of newborns while visiting a zoo and getting inspired by chicken incubators. The idea comes from the concept of the “adjacent possible”, which builds upon existing processes.

Human neurons contain 100 trillion connections. Neurons and cells cannot connect with each other without carbon. The author presents his view that humankind might be more creative when it is plugged into a wide network of other people. Large cities and university campuses provide fertile breeding grounds for ideas. Christoper Langton, an American computer scientist and one of the founders of the “field of artificial life”, has observed, innovative system gravitate toward the edge of chaos, between too much order too much anarchy.

The author recommends writing down our hunches which arise from the murkiness of our mind, lest we forget our hunches because of more pressing matters. Darwin used to revisit his notes and arrive at different conclusions. The German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz had a daydream by a crackling fire in which he saw a vision of the Ouroboros, the serpent from Greek mythology that devours itself. The vision helped him come up with the structure of benzene with its six-membered ring of carbon atoms.

The book provides several other examples of discoveries including that by the French mathematician Poincaré who discovered the class of Fuchsian functions and the use of the Doppler effect by Guier and Weiffenbach to measure and find the position of Sputnik.

Living in a competitive environment, going for walks, cultivating hunches, writing things down while keeping ours folders messy, embracing serendipity, making iterative mistakes, exploring multiple hobbies, and frequenting coffeehouses and other liquid networks can all contribute towards the inception of great life changing ideas.