the theory of multiples

If you look at the world’s biggest breakthrough ideas, they often occur simultaneously to different people.

This is known as the theory of multiples, and it was famously documented in 1922 by sociologists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas. When they surveyed the history of major modern inventions and scientific discoveries, they found that many of the big ones had been hit upon by different people, usually within a few years of each other and sometimes within a few weeks. They cataloged 148 examples: Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestley in England and Carl Wilhelm Scheele in Sweden. In 1610 and 1611, at least four different astronomers—including Galileo—independently discovered sunspots. John Napier and Henry Briggs developed logarithms in Britain, while Joost Bürgi did it independently in Germany. The law of the conservation of energy was laid claim to by four separate people in 1847. Ogburn and Thomas didn’t mention another multiple: Radio was invented around 1900 by two different engineers, working independently—Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla.

Why would the same ideas have occurred to different people at the same time? Ogburn and Thomas argued that it was because our ideas are, in a crucial way, partly products of our environment. They’re “inevitable.” When they’re ready to emerge, they do. This is because we do not work in a sealed-off, Rodin Thinker fashion.

The things we think about are deeply influenced by the state of the art around us: the conversations taking place among educated folk, the shared information, tools, and technologies at hand. If four astronomers discovered sunspots at the same time, it’s partly because the quality of lenses in telescopes in 1611 had matured to the point where it was finally possible to pick out small details on the sun and partly because the question of the sun’s role in the universe had become newly interesting in the wake of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. If radio was developed at the same time by two people, that’s because the basic principles that underpin the technology were also becoming known to disparate thinkers.

Even if you assume the occurrence of true genius is pretty low (they estimate that one person in 100 is on the “upper tenth” of the scale for smarts), when you multiply it across the entirety of humanity, that’s still a heck of a lot of geniuses.

When you think of it that way, what’s strange is not that big ideas occurred to different people in different places. What’s strange is that this didn’t happen all the time, constantly.

Clive ThompsonSmarter Than you Think