October 20, 2015
I’d like to tell the story of a paradox: How do we bring the right people to the right place at the right time to discover something new, when we don’t know who or where or when that is, let alone what it is we’re looking for? This is the paradox of innovation: If so many discoveries — from penicillin to plastics – are the product of serendipity, why do we insist breakthroughs can somehow be planned? Why not embrace serendipity instead? Because here’s an example of what happens when you don’t. ... By one estimate, the rate of new drugs developed per dollar spent by the industry has fallen by roughly a factor of 100 over the last 60 years. Patent statistics tell a similar story across industry after industry, from chemistry to metalworking to clean energy, in which top-down innovation has only grown more expensive and less efficient over time. ... Instead of speeding up the pace of discovery, large hierarchical organizations are slowing down — a stagflationary principle known as “Eroom’s Law,” which is “Moore’s Law” spelled backwards. ... Any society that values novelty and new ideas (like our innovation-obsessed one) will invariably trend toward greater serendipity over time. The push toward greater diversity, better public spaces, and an expanded public sphere all increase the potential for fortuitous discoveries.
To help feed billions of people, scientists braved the snake-infested and croc-filled swamps of northern Australia in search of rice. ... Musgrave is one of a few pit stops along the rutted, mostly dirt road that traverses Cape York, Australia, and ends at the northeasternmost tip of the continent, just 100 miles from Papua New Guinea. The peninsula is part of the world’s greatest concentration of free-flowing rivers and its most extensive network of intact tropical savannas, which stretches across the country’s north for hundreds of miles. Even in a country where open spaces rule the landscape, this place looms in the national mind as an uncharted, prehistoric mystery. This year alone, scientists discovered 13 new spider species on the peninsula. Cape York is roughly the size of Nebraska but with only 17,000 residents, most of whom are indigenous and clustered in a few towns along the coast. ... Grown on six continents and in 117 countries, rice is the world’s most important food. There are 144 million farms that grow rice, more than for any other crop. The vast majority of these are in developing countries, and virtually all of them are small, averaging just over 2 acres apiece. Simply put, the crop is the daily sustenance of the world’s poor. The primary reason is its remarkable biology. Rice is naturally prolific, each plant generating perhaps 25 times as many grains as a single wheat plant. When grown in water, its microbiome regenerates the soil’s nutrition, making fertilizer unnecessary. ... In recent decades, an increasing number of geneticists and plant breeders have realized that crops’ wild relatives hold immense value because they have not been domesticated. Instead of being narrowed and homogenized by humans, these crops have produced immeasurable genetic diversity as a result of their natural adaptation to pests, diseases, and climatic fluctuation. Their genes have already begun to help agriculture tackle the enormous challenges it faces today.
As positions of historical prominence go, it’s a rarefied one. Three US Presidents were murdered after Lincoln, but only one of the assassinations—John F. Kennedy’s—was followed by a similar (and much more storied) reprisal. Two days after Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, Jack Ruby killed Oswald with a .38 snub-nosed revolver on live television. ... Ruby was a loosely mobbed-up nightclub owner who claimed he’d done it to save Jacqueline Kennedy from having to endure the pain of a long murder trial. Corbett had a less shady but still unorthodox past—he was a hat maker with a strong religious streak who claimed God had commanded him to bring Lincoln’s killer to justice. Ruby went to prison; Corbett didn’t. ... But a peek at the pages of history—into old newspaper clippings, correspondence, and records held at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka—reveals how much the assassins’ assassins had in common. Like Ruby, Corbett ended up vilified after his unilateral action denied the public the chance to learn the full truth about the plot to kill the President. And Corbett, too, became fodder for conspiracy theories that followed him to his own strange end.
Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us. This can be accomplished in three basic ways: moving physical media around, broadcasting radiation through space, and sending signals through wires. This article is about what will, for a short time anyway, be the biggest and best wire ever made. ... FLAG, a fiber-optic cable now being built from England to Japan, is a skinny little cuss (about an inch in diameter), but it is 28,000 kilometers long, which is long even compared to really big things like the planet Earth. When it is finished in September 1997, it arguably will be the longest engineering project in history. ... we all depend heavily on wires, but we hardly ever think about them. Before learning about FLAG, I knew that data packets could get from America to Asia or the Middle East, but I had no idea how. I knew that it had something to do with wires across the bottom of the ocean, but I didn't know how many of those wires existed, how they got there, who controlled them, or how many bits they could carry. ... it behooves wired people to know a few things about wires - how they work, where they lie, who owns them, and what sorts of business deals and political machinations bring them into being.
Ölgii’s airport looks like that of a Soviet border post, which, in a sense, is exactly what it once was. Mongolia left the Soviet Union only in 1990. The tarmac was shrouded in ground mist, and as the sun rose, we saw ash- colored mountains and white nomad gers, or felt tents. Two Land Cruisers took us through Ölgii, with its decayed Soviet squares, through immense flocks of goats mingled with red- cheeked children on their way to school. On the far side, we followed the course of the dark-blue Khovd River, which curves through the desert steppes. Yaks and argali sheep me-andered along the river as well, shadowed by saker falcons. Jalsa’s temporary ger camp is built by the edge of this river every October for the Golden Eagle Festival and then dis-mantled afterward. It lies several miles from Ölgii, in a wilderness of grassland and glittering beech trees, the gers spread out along the gravel banks. ... The Kazakhs were—and many still are—Muslim nomads who emigrated into western Mongolia in the 1860s under pressure from the aggressively expanding czarist Russia. Their language is Turkic and thus unintelligible to Mongols, but they share with their hosts an ancient steppe culture based on the horse, on archery, and on hunting. In Kazakh, eagle hunters are known as berkutchi, from the word for “eagle,” berkut, and as with the Mongols, their falconry skills have been honed over centuries. Genghis Khan himself is rumored to have kept a thousand hunting birds for his pleasure.