Before we understood astronomy, we looked up at the night sky and explained the universe with stories that were within our realm of understanding. The stars were distant and tiny and it didn’t occur to us that we were looking at different versions of our own existence, other stars and galaxies just like our own. Seeing their greatness and having no explanation, we worshiped them. Then we began to understand the stars and, in doing so, understood how to explore them. We sent men to the moon, rovers to Mars, and satellites into deep space.
In the next few centuries we will experience a similar revolution but it will be a revolution of ‘understanding success’. We’ll realize that, like the stars, genius is not mystical and unreachable. We will understand that, like the stars, we are largely indifferent from each other and that genius is less about the person and more about their unique circumstances. Once we understand the importance of circumstance, our focus will shift. Success and invention will be formulaic. Opportunity will no longer be about the luck of being in the right place, at the right time. Instead, we will focus on the science of creating the right circumstances for genius to grow.
This post attempts to explain the circumstances that created the greatest minds of science.
The Theory of “Outliers”
Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that people like Bill Gates and Steve jobs aren’t as extraordinary as we think. His book, “Outliers”, dissects their success. He shows that they weren’t born geniuses and that their rise to the top was the result of being:
- Slightly above averaege intelligence
- Born at the right time in history
- The luck of being born and raised in the right place
- Which results in being exposed to the right opportunities early in life
- And 10,000 hours of practicing their trade so they’re highly skilled when opportunity comes knocking
Both Gates and Jobs were born in 1955. Both were highly exposed to the computing revolution as teenagers. As teenagers in the 60s, both had access to computers to practice programming. Those computers were within walking distance of their homes and this was decades before most people had even laid eyes on a computer that wasn’t in a magazine. “Outliers” ultimately paints the picture that extraordinary people are people born and raised in an environment that had all the right opportunities.
Gladwell pointed his lens at Silicon Valley’s greatest minds. This post is about pointing the lens at history, specifically scientific history. I’ve pieced together a timeline that explains why men like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein came to be so brilliant. They, too, were smart men who were lucky enough to be in the right place and at the right time.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
Issac Newton (1642-1727)
Electrostatic Machines, Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta, Batteries, Hans Christian Orsted, & Andre-Marie Ampere
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
James Maxwell (1831-1879)
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
I will use Copernicus as a starting point as he is the first domino, that I’ve identified, to fall and cause a chain reaction down a very long line of dominoes. What circumstances led Copernicus to his revelations I do not know but I had to choose a starting point!
Until Copernicus, it was widely accepted that the Earth was the center of the universe. He pioneered the idea that the motion of the planets could be more accurately described by assuming the sun to be the center of the universe. His theory was known as “Copernican heliocentrism.” Galileo would embrace this idea and expand upon it, in turn becoming “the father of modern science.”
Known as “the father of modern science” due to the revolutionary ideas he proved during his lifetime, Galileo was born 21 years after Copernicus died and picked up where he left off. During his lifetime, Galileo would have the advantage of a very important new tool that Copernicus never had. When Galileo was 44 (in 1608), Hans Lippershey invented the telescope. Galileo had the luck of being a very smart astronomer and mathematician who would be the first to point a telescope towards the night sky. He also happened to be an inventor and was able to improve upon the original telescope, eventually building a telescope that could magnify x10. Thanks to his work, it was during his lifetime, not Copernicus’s, that the he could start to provide better proof of “Copernican heliocentrism” and the idea would begin to truly take hold. This understanding of our solar system would benefit every astronomer after Galileo.
Galileo provided another essential building block of science. He disproved the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle by showing that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter ones. Galileo proved that they fall at the same rate. He theorized that air friction causes the difference we observe. That is why a feather falls more slowly than a wrench. This new understanding of falling bodies would later contribute to Issac Newton’s “Laws of Motion.” Newton would be born the year that Galileo died. (Galileo’s falling bodies theory wouldn’t be totally proven correct until we landed on the moon, where there is gravity but not air. The Apollo astronauts dropped a feather and a wrench. Both fell and landed simultaneously.)
Galileo started studying mathematics in 1581, at the age of 17. He had the unique opportunity of being an accomplished astronomer and mathematician in the year that the telescope was invented. Being born after Copernicus meant that he would be introduced to the idea that the sun was the center of the universe. Being an inventor meant he would be able to take the invention of the telescope and improve upon it, to make it 10x more powerful and look 10x closer at planets, moons, and orbits.
Johannes Kepler and Galileo were born only seven years apart and would both become two of the most famous scientific minds in history. Coincidence?
Kepler’s interest in astronomy and mathematics began earlier than Galileo. At age six Kepler became intrigued after watching “The Great Comet of 1577” pass through the atmosphere. It was so large that he could observe the comet without a telescope (which hadn’t been invented quite yet). Kepler would go on to figure out the “laws of planetary motion” which were some of the first works combining physics and astronomy. He published the first two laws in 1609, one year after the invention of the telescope. Twelve years after his death, Sir Issac Newton would be born and soon begin expanding upon Kepler’s ideas on motion.
As luck word have it (-: on the very year Galileo died, the Issac Newton was born! Seeing a pattern yet? Newton would have the advantage of Galileo and Kepler’s discoveries on planetary orbits and motion. It was a big advantage.
Newton was obviously no coincidence. Intelligent? Of course! Yet he was also very lucky. During his lifetime, Galileo had changed the world. When Galileo was born most of the world rejected Copernicus’s theory that the Earth orbited the sun. By the time Galileo died, many educated people had been swayed by Galileo. Newton would also have the advantage of Kepler having started work on explaining the forces of motion. Kepler had published his third and final law of motion in 1629, thirteen years before Newton was born. Newton would have the advantage of being born into an era with a more correct understanding of the universe. The first of his three “Laws of Motion” would not just be influenced by Kepler, but directly based on Kepler’s laws.
In developing his theories Newton was also responsible for another great leap forward. Soon after leaving university at age 23, Newton would begin to develop calculus. Calculus didn’t exist yet and Newton would go on to invent it. The same year Newton left university would be the year of the “Great Plague.” He returned home for two years to avoid the plague. He would study privately for that two years. Then he emerged with the beginnings of a great leap in mathematics, calculus. I believe that this two years of seclusion was a great contributor in two ways.
First, it allowed for intense focus. Second, it allowed him to develop his mathematical theories without being victim of dissent or subscription to the common thinking of his times. If that is true, it is a common trait between Newton, Einstein, and Galileo. Both Einstein and Galileo were believed to have had early influences that caused them to have disregard for authority. That mindset allowed them to think outside the common thinking and to trust in their own thoughts. When it comes to making great leaps forward, having disregard for authority let them trust in their own ideas when no one else did.
Electrostatic Machines, Batteries, and Four Smart Guys
Galileo, Kepler, and Newton made the scientific leaps of their generation, on the motion of planets and “Laws of Motion” in general. I believe that this only left room for incremental progress, at least until the entrance of some new understanding would allow the laws of physics to take further leaps forward. It turns out, that new understanding would be electromagnetism.
In the 1800s a lot would be learned about electricity. Let me take pause for a moment and remind you that in the 1800s home did not have electricity. For that matter, oil had hardly even been discovered. Kerosene lamps and candles were still the primary means for lighting a home. The means to create and harness electricity were just beginning.
In 1750, 23 years after Newton died, Benjamin Franklin flew his kite to test if lightning was electric. Man’s interest in electricity would only grow from this point on. Ancient civilizations had understood magnetism enough to build compasses used by early ships to navigate the oceans. Yet it would be much longer before man began to attempt to master electricity and discover its connection with magnetism. During the lifetimes of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton electricity was hard to study due to not having harnessed it.
Then came a very important invention, electrostatic machines. They were built using friction to generate static electricity. Still, it was a long shot from being a significant source of electric current. Then in 1800 Alessandro Volta invented the battery. Electricity was finally somewhat harnessed and, finally, could be studied more closely.
The first battery & Alessandro Volta
In 1820 Orsted discovered the magnetic field that surrounded all wires carrying electric current. Another great coincidence, no? Twenty years after the invention of the battery, a discovery is made concerning electricity and its effects! The discovery was by accident, having noticed the effect a battery being turned on and off had on a nearby compass’s needle. This discovery would allow Andrea-Marie Ampere to develop theories and mathematics on the relationship between electrical currents and magnetism that same year and to discover Ampere’s law six years after that (Andrea-Marie Ampere is where the term “amps” comes from).
Needless to say, Michael Faraday was born into an age of great innovation and discovery. When he was 9 the battery was invented. When he was 29, the connection between electricity and magnetism was discovered. During his lifetime many people would explore the ideas of electromagnetism (or electric dynamics as some called it then). Faraday’s ideas would be the most profound. The most important line of thinking that he appears to have started was that magnetism could affect rays of light. This would have enormous implications for the study of physics. I think it’s safe to say that this idea would have a direct affect on some of Einstein’s greatest discoveries. So why did Faraday rise about his peers in time where so many people were study electricity? Was he simply brilliant beyond measure? What do you think?
Many things may have given Faraday a competitive advantage against his peers. First, he was only ten when the battery was invented. He became interested in science during his teenage years and was drawn to electricity. At age 20 Faraday was already able to create his own battery. Having little education, it was a lucky break that in attending lectures on chemistry, he got to know the lecturer Humphrey Davy, and was offered a position as an assistant chemist. Davy would bring Faraday on a two year tour of Europe, having Faraday serve as a valet. This opportunity allowed Faraday exposure to many new, great scientific ideas and fields of exploration throughout the continent. He would later maintain correspondence with many of the scientists he met.
After Orsted’s discovery connecting electricity and magnetism in 1820, Humphrey Davy would attempt to build an electric motor. Faraday would be involved from this project but it failed. Faraday took what he learned from this failed experiment and built his own, working, electric motor. Ten years later Faraday would discover electromagnetic induction. Eight years after that, in 1839, Faraday would prove that, contrary to popular belief, only one type of electricity existed. Six years after that he would discover his most important connection, that between magnetic fields and rays of light.
Where the decades prior to James Maxwell’s birth were largely defined by experiments and inventions, Maxwell’s contributions to science would be in developing cohesive and consistent theories. It is fitting, then, that he would born when he was. Being born in 1831 allowed ideas like electromagnetism to be part of his early education and always part of his understanding of science. By the time he was ten electromagnetism had been discovered and researched for 20 years and electromagnetic induction researched for 10. Maxwell didn’t need to become an inventor or experimenter. That had been done for him. When Michael Faraday had was born, almost nothing was known about electricity. When Maxwell was born, lots was known about it.
At ten, Maxwell was sent to an Academy. In his early teens Maxwell took great interest in and excelled at both math and English. His inclination at English is important, I think, as great ideas often come from those able to think or picture their thoughts clearly. As is also the case with many of the greatest minds, Maxwell didn’t seem to care whether he maintained good marks. His studies surpassed what was on the syllabus and by 16 he had moved on to university. At the age of 19 he transferred to Trinity University and was quickly inducted into an elite mathematical society where he was tutored by William Hopkins, a man known for nurturing mathematical genius.
By age 24, in 1855, Maxwell had begun to elaborate upon Michael Faraday’s work on electromagnetism. Where Faraday’s mathematical skills were extremely limited, perhaps not beyond basic algebra, Maxwell’s mathematical ability was exceptional and he began to apply mathematical principals to Faraday’s theories. Most importantly, he was able to elaborate upon Faraday’s theories of light and electromagnetism. In 1845 Michael Faraday had discovered that magnetism could affect light. In 1864 Maxwell realized that the connection was far more intricate. Light and magnetism didn’t just affect each other, they were actually of the same origin. I cannot begin to tell you how important that discovery was to the theories that Einstein’s would write forty years later.
Einstein is famous because he tied it all together. I don’t mean that as a vague statement but as a descriptive one. His ultimate goal was an all inclusive, unified theory of everything. He came pretty damn close too. He began this attempt by taking Newton’s “Laws of Motion” and Maxwell’s work on “electromagnetism and light” and connected them.
When it came to expanding upon the “Laws of Motion,” Einstein was well suited to the task. He didn’t like math very much, so he didn’t spend much time trying to solve problems with equations. Instead, he spent a great deal of time thinking about motion. He thought about the observable world and attempted to find a set of laws that would explain it. In fact, he spent much of his time thinking about variations of the same scenario. He would think about a train passing by someone standing on an embankment. Who was at rest? Who was traveling? Weren’t both, since the Earth was moving around the sun? He spent years considering the train and would be rewarded by arriving at a the “theory of special relativity.”
When it came to expanding upon Maxwell’s ideas on light and magnetism, Einstein was well suited for this task as well. Einstein’s father happened to make generators which involved the use of coils and magnets. Throughout his childhood, Einstein had learned a great deal about electricity and magnetic fields. So thinking about how electricity and magnetism affect each other and behave together was easier for him.
Einstein wasn’t alone in expanding upon Maxwell’s ideas though. In fact, it was Max Planck who pioneered quantum theory in 1918, and not Einstein. The early 1900s were the first time in history were we had a basic understanding of electricity, magnetism, and motion. It was predictable that scientists would be trying to tie these things together. Even though I find most discovery to be predictable in the way it unfolds, I still hold more admiration for Einstein than any other mind of science. I find Einstein’s strides to have been worthy of enormous admiration. He didn’t want to understand more, he wanted to understand everything. He spent years in his own imagination, trying to make sense of the world he saw. He did not yield to criticism and he did not turn away from the enormity of the task before him. Instead he pioneered the theory of general relativity. He pioneered our modern view of space and time.
So how did Einstein make such enormous strides? What made him an “Outlier”? Issac Watson’s biography addresses these questions head on. Einstein’s father just happened to be an inventor who held several patents on inventions like coils and conductors. Einstein, was therefore, able to study electricity and magnetism at a young age. Watson’s biography also spends a great deal of time explaining that Einstein’s had a tendency to rebel against authority. Throughout his youth many things would contributor to his trusting more in his own beliefs than the beliefs of those presented to him. Had that not been the case he surely would have failed to change the world for his great ideas received strong opposition from people in positions of great prestige. Even after having published his paper revealing the true wave/particle duality of light and his paper on the “special theory of relativity” universities would not grant him a professorial position. Still, he held his ground and continued to present ideas of enormous implications.
If your contribution is going to be intellectual, such as a new way of thinking or viewing things, then you are best born into a world already changed. That way, you are born into a world with the facts at hand and you are left to put them together.
In the case of a new invention, such as in the time of Galileo and Kepler, it may be best to already be educated and experienced so when the telescope comes along, all you have to do is apply it to what you’re already studying.
When looked at individually each of these men seem to be extraordinarily brilliant. Yet when viewed as part of a timeline, their discoveries suddenly seem incremental. Each new discovery unleashed the ability to ask new questions. We remember the name of the first person to answer a big question and forget the names of all the others who may have come so close. Many failed because they never had a chance. In 1800 how many people made of the developed, Western world? And how many of them were well educated? And how many of them were educated in astronomy, physics, and mathematics? Probably 99% of people failed to become great minds of science because they were never involved in science to begin with. Of the remaining 1%, most probably failed because they refused to abandon what society had taught them. They went about trying to explain the universe with the Earth at the center, instead of asking if that made any sense to begin with. Fame was ultimately claimed by the person willing to pursue the truth regardless of skepticism and who was born in the right time, in the right place.
Thanks very much for reading and please share your thoughts! I wasn’t a science major or history major. These topics are just a hobby of mine. If you notice any incorrect dates or facts please let me know. The specific dates of events were all from Wikipedia.
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BONUS SECTION: Charles Darwin explained
I wouldn’t want to explore the motivations and contributions of the great minds of science and leave Charles Darwin (1809-1882) unmentioned!
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
You may recall that the HMS Beagle was the ship on which Darwin explored the world. During his 5 year voyage he observed variations of the same species developing differently on different continents. His observations would eventually help lead him to the theory of Darwinian evolution.
Darwin had a unique knowledge base. He had attended medical school but abandoned it. He instead went down the path to becoming a naturalist (one versed in natural history). He also found himself in a unique situation.
The world had been circumnavigated many times before the HMS Beagle was commissioned to survey the world. On its first voyage around the globe, the crew had found the need for an expert geologist who could help survey the land. As it was, in 1831 Darwin came home to find a letter offering him a position aboard the HMS Beagle. The invitation was unsolicited! Darwin accepted. It would be a five year voyage allowing him to observe life on earth more extensively than almost any man before him.
It also so happened that Darwin was born in the right time. It would also just so happen that 34 years before Darwin was born, James Hutton pioneered the idea of uniformitarianism which challenged the idea that history evolved through abrupt changes in the earth such as floods and volcanic eruptions. Uniformitarianism suggests gradual change. Upon returning home a colleague of Darwin happened to have published a book expanding upon these ideas. His friend, Charles Lyell, focused on understanding that change is gradual so by examining current conditions, one can derive something of previous conditions.
So you see, even Darwin, may have been only an intelligent man born in the right time and who happened to be in the right place once or twice.