Best-selling author Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, 2010, etc.) continues his explorations of what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” unforeseeable chains of influence that change the world.
An innovation, writes the author, typically arises in one field—chemistry, say, or cryptography. But it does not rise alone—“ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas,” and those tributary ideas likely came from many sources and disciplines, conditioned by the intellectual resources available at the time. Da Vinci aside, the author notes that even the most brilliant 17th-century inventor couldn’t have hit on the refrigerator, which “simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment.” A couple of centuries later, it was, thanks to changes in our understanding of materials, physics, chemistry and other areas. Johnson isn’t the first writer to note that such things as the can opener were game-changers, but he has a pleasing way of spinning out the story to include all sorts of connections as seen through the lens of “long zoom” history, which looks at macro and micro events simultaneously. Sometimes he writes in a sort of rah-rah way that, taken to extremes, could dumb the enterprise down intolerably, as when he opines, “silicon dioxide for some reason is incapable of rearranging itself back into the orderly structure of crystal.” Take out “for some reason” and replace with “because of the laws of physics,” and things look brighter. However, Johnson’s look at six large areas of innovation, from glassmaking to radio broadcasting (which involves the products of glassmaking, as it happens), is full of well-timed discoveries, and his insistence on the interdisciplinary nature of invention and discovery gives hope to the English and art history majors in the audience.
Of a piece with the work of Tracy Kidder, Henry Petroski and other popular explainers of technology and science—geeky without being overly so and literate throughout.