The original big ideas came from innovative men and women whose names are long lost. No monuments commemorate the inventors of the bowl, the dugout canoe, or the wheel, nor those who first planted crops, smelted copper, or etched marks into wet clay to inaugurate writing. Yet their legacies are all around us, in the foundations of the modern world.
With the advent of writing, big ideas came to be regarded as the providence of big thinkers. These intellectuals, as they were called, contributed valuable insights but seldom discovered or invented anything. Instead they analyzed and rearranged the relatively few facts that were then known, like jailhouse card sharks forever shuffling the same deck of cards.
Science and technology did not so much build on the intellectual tradition as react against it, returning to the habits of hands-on tinkering that characterized prehistoric innovation. Pioneering scientists like Galileo, Gilbert, Harvey, and Newton had little use for scholarly analysis of venerable opinions. They were more apt to agree with Francis Bacon, the great 17th-century prophet of science, who likened his Cambridge professors to “becalmed ships; they never move but by the wind of other men’s breath.”
The scientists preferred to find new facts, such as how gravity and magnetism work, how blood circulates through the human body, and how planets orbit the sun. Their points of reference came less from reading old books than from experimentation and observation—what Galileo called reading “the book of nature.”
The result of their campaign was an unprecedented improvement in the lives of people around the world. Prior to the scientific and technological revolutions, the average human being was illiterate, earned a few hundred dollars a year, and was unlikely to survive to see age 30. Today, over 80 percent of all adults are literate, the global median annual income exceeds $7,000, and life expectancy at birth is approaching age 70. All this happened so quickly, measured against the long shadows of our history and prehistory,that many people don’t yet realize that it has happened.
I keep on my desk a Neanderthal hand ax, chipped from a piece of obsidian some 34,000 years ago. It’s a good ax; pick it up and you immediately start imagining all sorts of things you could do with it, from cutting meat to defending yourself to making another ax. That spirit, of learning and being inspired through direct physical interrogation of nature, is the real impetus behind science and technology alike.
Bacon, writing at the dawn of modern science, argued that experimenters “are like the ant; they only collect and use,” whereas logicians “resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. “But the bee takes a middle course,” Bacon wrote. “It gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.”
Time proved Bacon right. Scientists today are so immersed in technology, and technologists in science, that it can be difficult to trace where one ends and the other begins. This messy process satisfies the neat prescriptions of neither scholars nor priests, but its results speak for themselves: More facts are now discovered in a decade than were once acquired in a century.
Were Bacon alive today he might compare global science and technology to fields of wildflowers fertilized by bees: astonishing in their variety, yet each part testifying to the nature of the whole. The volume you are holding is a way into that excitement and splendor. Welcome, in short, to a beehive of a book.
Excerpted from The Big Idea by National Geographic; Foreword by Timothy Ferris. Copyright © 2011 by National Geographic; Foreword by Timothy Ferris. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.