How Innovative Ideas Arise
James Clear

I think Newton recognized this with his remark that he had seen farther because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Personally, I love the tool kits we have today. They are pretty amazing. You can make much more wonderful things if you have bigger, more powerful pieces. Newton had algebra from the Mediterranean world, geometry from the ancient Greeks, astronomy built over millennia, and Galilean physics. The Wright brothers had Otto cycle gasoline engines, Newtonian physics and bicycle parts.

Given my love of high powered tool kits, the Toaster Project strikes me as misguided except as an exercise in understanding our physical civilization. If anything, things are getting increasingly complex. We use more of the elements in our manufactures than ever. Lithium was a novelty, not a battery component. Americium was science fiction, not in every smoke detector. I think an iPhone uses 80 of the 92 stable elements.

We are in the golden age of materials science. We can engineer materials with the properties we want and control their structure to an unprecedented degree. Then we can use our amazing tool kit to mass produce what we need. If we need materials that can turn light into electricity, we can create them, then we can build an industry to drive their cost down as the Chinese government has done over the last few decades. It’s almost eerie what we can do and that so much of it is invisible.

Inventing from scratch never really made sense. If you could knap a flint knife, you could knap an arrow or spear head. If you didn’t have flint, you could use a similar approach with other materials, and flint knapping was probably based on wood working technology so it wasn’t all that basic either. Even our basic human tool kit was built incrementally. We are just so far from its beginning that it is hard to recognize where we are.

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