Ideas are nothing without execution

Robert Hooke is the poster boy for the notion that it is not sufficient to have a good idea.

As I’ve lugged Lisa Jardin’s biography of Hooke around over the past few weeks, it’s been hard to explain who exactly Hooke was. You may remember him as the ugly cretin in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series.

But Hooke was so much more than that caricature. He was a brilliant polymath who coined the term "cell", redesigned much of London along with Christopher Wren, built instruments for Robert Boyle, and was long-standing curator of experiments in the early years of the Royal Society.

He dabbled in so many things. Had so many ideas. But no one I encountered had ever heard of him. Hooke consistently got himself 90% of the way there, but it was others that scored the goals.

"…Hooke is the man who almost made great discoveries now tied to the names and enduring fame of others: Boyle’s law of pressure of enclosed gases; Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational attraction; Huygen’s theory of the isochronous pendulum clock; Harrison’s longitude timekeeper.

It’s the notion that Hooke came up with Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, or inspired it, or something in between, that best illustrates this point. From my little research, it seems clear that there is something to Hooke’s claim. But it was undoubtedly Newton that had the mathematical brilliance to prove it, and for that he is remembered and Hooke is not.

It wasn’t enough to have the idea. The idea is nothing without execution.

"In Newton’s mind, priority lay with the person who had produced the mathematical proof of the elliptical motion of the planets, not the one who had proposed such a motion hypothetically in conversation, as part of a broad speculative discussion of planetary movement."

I really recommend The Curious Life of Robert Hooke by Lisa Jardine. I’ve now read a few of her books, loved them all, and am shooting for the set.

The curious life of Charles Darwin

Your ideas are the sum of your influences. This is something I first came across in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From:

“ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

And it’s this concept, what Steven Johnson calls the "adjacent possible", that kept coming to mind as I read Paul Johnson’s brilliant, short biography of Charles Darwin.

The story is packed with Darwin’s influences, from Malthus to Lyell, and, of course, The Beagle. These are the dots that Darwin eventually joined in his scientific work.

"At intervals in the five-year voyage, Darwin was able to spend a total of three years and one month on land, traveling widely… He shot a wide variety of birds and animals, went on an ostrich hunt, studied the effects of a large-scale earthquake, observed a major volcanic eruption, and visited at length tropical rain forests, high mountains, sierras, pampas and other grasslands, rivers, lakes, and a wide variety of scrub and brushwood areas, as well as scores of native villages, settler towns, mines, and cities."

As we can see from that one passage, Darwin was voracious. In an age of specialisation, its easy to forget that people like Darwin dabbled, slowly expanding horizons and building up the bricolage.

"In 1838 he came across… Malthus’s Essay on Population… This had a huge emotional impact on him, equivalent to the ones he had felt when he first experienced the savages of Tierra del Fuego…"

"He liked to have several projects going at once and switch from one to another as the spirit or the excitement generated by results moved him – from zoology to botany to physiology or anthropology, from insects to plants, the invertebrates, to men, and back to insects again."

The voracity of the ideas doesn’t even seem to matter. Even in Darwin and Malthus’ day, the evidence was against Malthus’ Iron Law of Population. But it inspired something else and was reworked. The important point is to be open to fresh thinking.

"Darwin was a polymath. It was his great strength. Without the breadth as well as the depth of his knowledge, it is doubtful whether Origin could have succeeded.

This is a great, short intro to Darwin. Although, it will probably leave you wanting more. If anyone has any suggestions for a longer Darwin bio I’m all ears.

The path dependency of higher education

An interesting paper by Etienne Leppers at the LSE suggests that where central bankers (specifically, those on the Federal Open Market Committee of the the US Federal Reserve) were educated has a "systematic impact" on the way they vote on monetary policy.

This is true even considering the more than four decades that have elapsed since Chairwoman Janet Yellen got her PhD.

"graduate training in economics is the first place for the formation of biased preferences, because of the substantial ideological sorting that exists across universities."

"The literature on the determinants of central bankers’ voting behaviour has already revealed that governors do not simply respond to economic variables and models’ outputs. They are influenced by deliberation, by the chairman, by politics through appointment choices and by pressures in and out of election times; and by their pre-central-bank career and post-central-bank career plans. In this paper, the analysis is extended to include yet one more variable: ideologically influenced academic training."

Economics may be a special case here, as there is significant debate in some areas, with identifable ideological "camps". And, in America at least, certain universities can be clearly identified with schools of thought.

"Robert Hall already drew in 1976 a clear ideological and methodological line between two schools: the freshwater school (Midwest of the US: e.g. Chicago or Minnesota), for which the government is not capable of reviving the economy because fluctuations come from supply shifts as opposed to the saltwater school (in coastal US universities: e.g. Berkeley, Harvard or Princeton) which focuses on stimulating demand through government policies."

But I am still astounded at the sheer length of time over which this effect can be observed. It goes to show how much an impact not only early ideas and influences can have, but social connections too. Your mentors, your friends, your favourite books and first job… Your choice of university is huge.

"…earlier professional life is not the most important period for the formation of inflation preferences. Instead, we try to demonstrate the role of academic training and the socialisation that happens not in the different types of careers, but in the different types of universities."

Can you think of any biases that still hang around from your university days?

Mozart was a village

It’s hard to fathom the mind of a genius. Although I really enjoy biographies, I often learn more of and from the world around them than I do from the subject itself.

In the case of Paul Johnson’s short, brilliant biography of Mozart, it’s Mozart’s father that piqued my interest. The endless renditions of concertos, operas and symphonies went over my head. But the dotted references to Leopold Mozart, WolfGang Mozart’s father, humanises both the story and Mozart himself.

"Leopold Mozart… the son of a bookbinder, was a well-educated man with a degree in philosophy who had come to Salzburg in his late teens and joined its musical fraternity as a valet instrumentalist.

He loved music and became one of the most learned musicologists of his day. He specialised in the violin, and his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, published the year of Mozart’s birth, is not only a handbook of instruction but a theoretical work that made him well known in musical circles throughout Europe."

Mozart didn’t suddenly appear, fully formed. He might have been phenomenally gifted from an early age, but that had to be nurtured by someone with time, passion and knowhow.

Unfortunately, its these stories that often get lost. We value and laud the individual, not the village. Leopold Mozart was well known by his peers, but how many know him now?

When you listen to Mozart’s music, if that is your wont, do you appreciate the wider sacrifice that went into the prodigy?

"Leopold Mozart’s ability as a composer in addition to his work as a violin expert should not be underrated. But about 1760, according to Nannerl, he "abandoned violin teaching and composing music to devote himself to educating his two children"…

After 1762 he composed rarely and never after 1770-71. He is often seen as a tyrant toward his children, but the fact is, he surrendered his own future as a musician for their sake, and their progress justified his sacrifice."

Definitely recommend Mozart by Paul Johnson. Even if you are a musical philistine (as I am), you’ll smash it out in a couple of hours and learn a lot along the way.


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