Science Culture

Innovation is crucial to our future, but the process, which turns inventions into applications that are affordable and useful, is not generally well understood. It is collective, collaborative, incremental, fortuitous, and based on trial and error. And forces that can stymie it must be reckoned with. Two of the books reviewed below—How Innovation Works and Make, Think, Imagine—explore the history of innovation and its prospects. The third book, Imagination, could easily have had “And How It Works” added to its title; it deals with the human brain’s ability to form images and create scenarios in the absence of sensory input. Even in its most humdrum form, imagination is a necessary component of long-term memory and makes it possible for us to plan.

HOW INNOVATION WORKS: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom. Matt Ridley. 406 pp. HarperCollins, 2020. $29.99.

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Matt Ridley is an engaging storyteller, and more than 60 percent of his new book, How Innovation Works, consists of stories about innovators. He makes a distinction between inventors and innovators: the latter are people who take an invention (their own or someone else’s) and make it “practical, affordable, reliable and ubiquitous” enough to be worth using—people who apply new ideas to raise the standard of living. By telling us about their successes and failures, Ridley says, he will teach us how innovation happens.

Most of these stories, told at length and in fascinating detail, are arranged into chapters that deal with the particular field in which the innovation was made: energy (steam, electricity, nuclear power, shale gas), public health (vaccination, chlorination, antibiotics, antiseptics, insecticide, electronic cigarettes), transport (locomotives, steamships, the internal combustion engine, the diesel engine, aviation), food (potatoes, nitrogen fertilizer, dwarfing genes, plants genetically modified to kill insects, plants made resistant to bacteria using CRISPR), and communication and computing (telegraphy, radio, the computer, shrinking transistors, search engines, social media, artificial intelligence). In addition, there are chapters on low-technology innovation (Arabic numerals, water traps in toilets, corrugated iron roofs, cargo containers for ships, wheeled luggage, new combinations of cuisines, fast-food franchising, the sharing economy) and prehistoric innovation (farming, the domestication of dogs, tools, fire, life itself).

Elements of many of these stories are well-known; we’ve all heard about James Watt, for example, but Ridley, in keeping with his theme that innovation is a collective endeavor of trial and error to which many people contribute, begins the story of the steam engine by introducing us to Thomas Newcomen, Denis Papin, and Thomas Savery, all of whom aspired to build steam engines. In 1712, Newcomen actually succeeded in building one that worked, but his engine was very inefficient, and it wasn’t until 1763 that James Watt came along and solved that problem.

Ridley likes to compare innovation with evolution, and his chapter discussing what he calls the 10 essential elements of innovation touches on a number of the things the two processes have in common. Like evolution, innovation is gradual; it happens primarily in small, incremental steps, and most technologies evolve from previous technologies rather than being invented from scratch. Innovation is different from invention. (Ridley cites an old cartoon that shows a beaver and a rabbit looking up at the Hoover Dam. The beaver says, “No, I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on an idea of mine.”) Innovation is also serendipitous, “recombinant,” and based on trial and error. It is a team sport, with different people trying many different things in a process that is “cross-fertilized and networked”; it happens “between, not within, brains.” Innovation is “inexorable”; often multiple people independently stumble across the same idea at the same time. There is a “hype cycle”: New technologies are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term. Innovation is most likely to flourish under “fragmented governance” (in city-states, for example); empires and autocracies tend to be bad at it. And innovation usually allows us to do more with less.

In a chapter on the economics of his subject, Ridley takes issue with what he refers to as the “creationist” view that most innovation is the product of government-supported research and development (“intelligent design” by government). After all, governments didn’t start supporting innovation on a large scale until the second half of the 20th century, and a great deal of innovation took place long before that. He also critiques the view that science leads to technology, which leads to innovation; he points out that often we don’t understand the mode of action of an innovation until long after it is in practical use. Big companies are bad at innovation, he says, because they are bureaucratic and have too big a vested interest in the status quo. Although he has decidedly mixed feelings about intellectual property rights and patents, he seems to side chiefly with those who believe that the restrictions they impose exert too great a drag on innovation. Ridley acknowledges in this chapter that “innovation is not necessarily a good thing,” noting that it can be harmful if it results in products that are toxic or dangerous. And he devotes an entire separate chapter to frauds and failures, such as Enron and Theranos.

But for the most part Ridley is a big booster of innovation, defending it against criticisms at every turn, and dismissing concerns about job destruction and unemployment. He claims that in the United States, workers today spend only about 10 percent of their lives working, compared with 25 percent for workers in 1900; but to arrive at that 10 percent figure, he assumes a 40-hour work week (with an hour-long lunch break that counts as work time) and at least “a few weeks” of vacation every year. Ridley is British (which you’ll notice even if you don’t read his author bio, because British spellings such as “defence” have been retained in the text), so maybe that’s why he seems unaware of the long hours typically put in by salaried employees in the United States; in 2014, on average they worked 49 hours a week, and they often find themselves too busy to take earned vacation time.

In a chapter on resistance to innovation, Ridley criticizes activism (calling it “a significant deterrent”) and the precautionary principle. Displaying little concern about risks, he maintains that there are no good scientific arguments against such innovations as fracking and vaping, and his support for genetically modified agriculture, and even the use of glyphosate, is particularly unnuanced. He deplores many types of regulations and seems to regard as preposterous the notion that concern for preservation of an endangered species could be a justifiable reason for delaying the completion of an innovative project. Because the book has no footnotes, just a relatively short bibliography for each chapter, readers who are not inclined to just take Ridley’s word for the absence of scientific evidence against these innovations will have to investigate the topics on their own.

How Innovation Works wasn’t published until May 19, 2020, but no coda was added discussing how much the world and its prospects have been changed by COVID-19 since the manuscript was completed. Thus it is unclear to what extent Ridley’s commentary on economics and his speculations about the future in the last chapter remain relevant. He foresees an innovation famine in the West, where regulators and others are “sucking the vital juices from entrepreneurial enterprises,” and he believes that innovation will continue to burgeon in China, despite the fact that the country’s government is authoritarian. He notes that innovation is also accelerating in India and Brazil. The book closes with a reiteration of Thomas Edison’s emphasis on experimentation and hard work, and an admonition that we abandon innovation at our peril.

MAKE, THINK, IMAGINE: Engineering the Future of Civilization. John Browne. 409 pp. Pegasus Books, 2019. $29.95.

Innovation is a subject upon which John Browne, the author of Make, Think, Imagine, can opine from some unique vantage points. Trained as an engineer, he has a physics degree from the University of Cambridge and a business degree from Stanford, and is best-known for having been CEO of BP from 1995 to 2007. He has served on the boards of Intel, a number of other companies, and many organizations, including the Francis Crick Institute, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the Tate Gallery; he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and has served in the House of Lords.

As research for this book, which he hopes will encourage progress while demonstrating that its risks can be managed, Browne interviewed 100 experts (“the world’s greatest innovators”), most of whom he had previously met or collaborated with. Some are famous (Tim Berners-Lee, Craig Venter), many hold important posts in business or academia, and all are achievers in fields ranging from archaeology, architecture, computer science, economics, philosophy, and theoretical physics to robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and autonomous vehicles. Their voices help bring the book to life, as do Browne’s descriptions of places he visits in the course of conducting his interviews, such as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the headquarters of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, the campus of Google, a 3D-printing manufacturing site in the north of England, and several museum collections, where he examines innovations from earlier eras, including an axe from the Stone Age, an astrolabe, prints and texts produced by the earliest printing presses, and a watch masterpiece made by hand in the 18th century.

From Make, Think, Imagine.

Browne begins the book by talking about progress, which is made through a process of connecting ideas from different fields, trying things out, and learning from mistakes. He understands that progress is about more than rational functionality—that it is also about beauty, art, and the irrational. And he notes that even advances that are not technological may depend on engineering: For instance, the civil rights movement needed microphones and radio broadcasts to amplify its messages, and democracy requires reliable techniques for tallying votes. Importantly, he recognizes that a balance must be struck between innovation and the preservation of a stable society. Engineered solutions are imperfect, especially at first, and can have unintended and even harmful effects. Therefore, “innovators must strive to understand the hopes, needs and fears of society,” he says, by enlisting the help of people who have “a deep understanding of the human condition.” Also, innovators should respond to attacks on progress “with compassion and care.” Browne understands that many people feel disenfranchised by globalization and believe that the world is getting worse. He hopes in the book to restore the public’s confidence in innovation, not just by explaining how we have benefited from it historically, but by showing how its unintended consequences and abuses can be counteracted or prevented.

Because making things is at the heart of progress, manufacturing is discussed next, in “Make”—a chapter that moves from Stone Age tools to 3D printing, covering bespoke watchmaking, mass production, assembly lines, industrial robots, increasing automation, mass customization, and the role of open-source software along the way. Browne notes that innovation in physical engineering is needed to tackle climate change, to relieve poverty in the developing world, and to improve health care, infrastructure, and transport.

“Think” is a chapter devoted to machines that help us think: Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, EDSAC (the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Computer), microprocessing chips, quantum computing, personal computers, cloud computing, neural network algorithms and deep learning, and the pen—a reliable device with a minuscule price.

Chapters titled “Connect,” “Build,” “Energise,” “Move,” “Defend,” and “Survive” discuss, respectively, networks and innovations in communication; architecture and city planning; energy and climate change; transportation; everything from gunpowder and nuclear bombs to chronometers, satellites, cybersecurity, and robots; and advances in medicine and public health.

The final chapter, “Imagine,” is about some of the most ambitious engineering projects. Here Browne discusses the use of SLAC to explore the nature of matter; attempts to map the brain and enhance mental capabilities; advanced artificial intelligence; and the James Webb Space Telescope. He worries that engineering is becoming increasingly siloed and disconnected from design and creativity. One of his interviewees maintains that credit is being stolen from engineers and given to scientists. Browne reminds readers that innovation can have unpredictable effects and that engineers have an obligation to use their imaginations to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and wants of the people who will use that which they produce.

Make, Think, Imagine obviously has some overlap with Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works (discussed in the review at the top of this post). The latter is quite readable and serves as a good introduction to the topic, but Browne’s book is more thoughtful, analytical, insightful, comprehensive, wide-ranging, and deeply researched (there are more than 50 pages of endnotes). For instance, Ridley acknowledges the importance of the invention of printing, devoting several sentences to Johannes Gutenberg, Martin Luther, and William Tyndale; but Browne begins with cuneiform tablets and the emergence of alphabets, goes into greater depth about the significance of the printing press, and recognizes that the advent of printed images was likewise revolutionary, particularly in providing scientific and technical diagrams. (Asked in an interview what he thought was the most important technological advance in history, Browne singled out the scripts and tools needed to write, keep records, and make calculations.) Unlike Ridley, Browne gives serious weight to the risks posed by innovations in the past and in our potential future. Throughout Make, Think, Imagine, the presence of so many voices of living innovators gives Browne’s book a greater richness and focuses it more on the current cutting edge.

IMAGINATION: The Science of Your Mind’s Greatest Power. Jim Davies. Pegasus Books, 2019. $28.95.

On the first page of Imagination: Your Mind’s Greatest Power, author Jim Davies is at pains to point out that, although creativity is “the most spectacular use of imagination,” his book is not about creativity (which he defines as the creation of something new that is effective). The book deals instead with more mundane kinds of imagination—for example, that which takes place when you are asked to “Imagine a jar of peanut butter,” and you form a representation in your mind of the jar and its contents—or when you plan your day and must think of possible future realities, such as the order in which you will run your errands. You also have to use your imagination when you are remembering something that happened to you, Davies notes, because when you do so, “you’re creating a simulation of a time and place that no longer exists.”

The essence of imagination is the creation of ideas in your head. For most people, the clearest form of imagining is mental imagery, when you have the experience of seeing by using information from your memory (your perceptual history) rather than by using input from the environment. Individuals differ in how vivid and detailed their imagery may be, and a small number say that they experience no mental imagery at all. Mental imagery can form spontaneously—as may happen while you are reading a novel or “fleshing out” a verbal description—or it can be generated with an act of will. But you can also imagine things without imagery, using what Davies calls “conceptual imagination,” as when thinking about an abstraction like justice. Memories that are factlike, or semantic (for example, “My name is Flora”), are represented as propositions (sentencelike structures) in what is known as long-term declarative memory. Hardly any of us have true photographic memories; instead, according to most psychologists, even though it feels as though we have pictures in our memories that we can recall, our long-term memories are actually made up of connected symbols that allow us to reconstruct something like a picture from nonpicture memories. If we are asked to imagine a bird, we typically imagine an averaged representation—a prototype of a bird. In a chapter on perception and memory, Davies also discusses the spatial element of memories, whether memories have two dimensions or three, procedural memory, episodic memory (memory of things you have experienced yourself), false memories, and monitoring of the sources of memories.

In a chapter on imagining the future, Davies notes that when we do so, it is a mistake to rely on “whatever our memory dredges up” rather than systematically reviewing all the possibilities. We need to guard against planning bias—being overly optimistic about how quickly we can get something done. Because we tend to imagine our future self as a different person, we are less likely to choose actions that include making sacrifices for the benefit of that future self. Although goal visualization can have benefits, imagining that we have already achieved our goals can make us less likely to fulfill them; it’s better to visualize the individual steps needed to take to accomplish our aims. Something else to keep in mind is that when we predict how we’ll feel in the future, we often get it wrong.

Davies goes on to discuss the fact that that you can use your imagination to change your feelings about a memory by reimagining it in a different way. He also notes that the way you imagine a moral situation can affect your judgment about it. Thinking of yourself as a good person in the abstract can help you be a better person, but if you vividly imagine yourself being good, you may end up thinking you’re already “good enough.” You can use your imagination to improve your mood, but you have to do so strategically. Reflecting on what you’re grateful for can be particularly beneficial.

Long chapters on hallucinations, dreaming, and mind-wandering and daydreaming make up more than a quarter of the book. Hallucinations are not necessarily just imaginings that are mistaken for reality, Davies says. We tend to have more control of our imaginations, and we don’t tend to believe that what they produce is real. Interestingly, imagination activates the prefrontal cortex, which is not active during at least some types of hallucinations. Topics covered in the chapter on hallucination include phantom limbs, Capgras syndrome, schizophrenia, Charles Bonnet syndrome, migraines, olfactory hallucination, sensory deprivation, inhibitory neural connections, and synesthesia.

Dreams are like hallucinations in that they are taken as real while we are dreaming (lucid dreaming is the rare exception to this). In one experiment, subjects were shown complex pictures so briefly that they had no conscious memory of seeing them; next they were asked to draw what they had seen. Then they were told to go home and dream about the pictures. The next day they drew scenes from their dreams, and those drawings contained elements of the subliminally presented pictures, suggesting that the subjects had stored details that they couldn’t consciously remember.

Compared with dreams, daydreams are less violent, more reflective, less bizarre, more coherent, and more emotionally realistic; they are more concerned with the future, and their purpose may be to help us with planning and goals. One speculation is that we may have as many as two thousand fleeting daydreams per day.

Other subjects the book delves into include mnemonics, memory palaces, healing and pain relief, meditation, problem-solving, imaginary companions, virtual reality, and optical illusions.

In a section on imagination and science, Davies notes that visualization is helpful to practicing scientists: He compares imagination to “a physical simulation that allows scientists to rapidly ‘test’ ideas for plausibility in their minds.” Imagination and imagery help us make analogies, which have been used to make scientific discoveries. But our mental images tend to be limited by our memories of our perceptions, and our sense organs filter what we perceive: We can’t see certain wavelengths and can’t hear above a certain pitch. Our common sense, which evolved based on what we can perceive with our sense organs, breaks down when faced with the very small (quantum effects), the very large (behavior of galaxies), the very slow (tectonic plate movement), or the very fast (effects when approaching speed of light). In such circumstances, mental imagery can actually be a hindrance to the development of scientific theories.

The book’s wide range gives readers a lot to think about, but it is crammed with so many facts of such great variety and hops so quickly from one to another that I sometimes got bogged down and lost the narrative thread or found the information difficult to take in. In the course of reading the book, I often found myself wishing for more detailed descriptions of the scientific research studies whose findings Davies presents—descriptions that would have given me more of a basis for deciding how much weight to give to a study’s conclusions, without having to track down the source provided in a footnote. All too often, Davies neglects even to say how many subjects participated in an experiment.



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