March 05, 2011

The Genius Business

How many problems does humanity face? Over-population, lack of clean drinking water, lack of sanitation, food shortages, energy shortages, and so on.

Peter Diamandis was talking about how we are on the verge of an age of abundance. And I was struck by how counter-intuitive that is to the way things appear to be right at this moment.
So, are we on the verge of an age of conflict or an age of abundance? And what has that got to do with being a genius?
The odd thing that struck me is how few of these geniuses are there. When you look through history, how many names can one think of who have been responsible for fundamental changes.
I can think of these people:
  1. The Wright brothers showed that heavier than air powered flight was possible. The aviation industry basically followed from that. Whittle's jet engine led to the current great age of aviation.
  2. Goddard's idea of multistage rockets lies at the heart of rocketry of all sorts to this day. It has enabled us to send communication satellites, space shuttles, and the Apollo lunar landers to the Moon. And we are still waiting for that next genius idea that will lead to the development of interstellar human exploration with vehicles that fly at speeds which are significant fractions of the speed of light.
  3. The cell phone has been quite a revolution in communication. It is probably one of the very few revolutionary ideas that can't be traced back to one individual. Martin Cooper of Motorola of course led the team that created the first of these devices. But then the cell phone was an extension of existing wired phones. And the individuals who are responsible for the creation of that technology are Graham Bell and Marconi. Tesla and J. C. Bose were pioneers as well.
  4. The modern age of microprocessors is due to a couple of companies: Intel and AMD. Intel was founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. Andy Grove of course is also a key part of the Intel story.
  5. Bob Noyce and Jack Kilby are of course the co-inventors of the microchip.
  6. John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain invented the transistor which led to the microchip.
  7. Modern physics owes its existence to such geniuses as Rutherford, Bohr, Scrodinger, Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg, Feynman, Schwinger, Weinberg, etc.
  8. Modern astronomy/astrophysics has many heroes such as Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Hubble, Chandrasekhar, Hawking, Penzias, Wilson, Mather, etc.
  9. Biology has many luminaries such as Darwin, Pasteur, Fleming, Watson, Crick, etc.

This is just a random sample of names and people. One could talk of many others such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who have been responsible for the desktop computer revolution. Life without Google today seems almost unthinkable. So, hats off to the search engine pioneers as well.

That list may have missed a few names. May be one can add hundreds of people to that list. Or, thousands. The Apollo project itself involved some 4,00,000 Americans. The Manhattan Project was almost as large.

But clearly, not everyone involved with the Apollo or the Manhattan projects had to be a genius. So, the total number of people who have made astonishing contributions to humankind is really limited numbering in the hundreds or thousands.

But this is a planet that has seven billion people — 7,000 million.

This clearly shows that the direction that humanity takes is more or less determined by the minds of a few people who make fundamental discoveries or inventions that affect vast numbers of people.

So, my feeling is this. When I mentioned the challenges facing humanity at the beginning of this article, they are barely five or so in number. Is it possible that it won't take many more than five geniuses to solve all of humanity's problems?

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