Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for Science

Beyond First Impressions

There are many stories that fascinate me about the tremendous potential of individuals being hidden behind personal peculiarities and foibles. Even more interesting are when two or more of these individuals are put together and become creators or catalysts of a great breakthrough.

This is fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. One is a common theme I like to write about which is the failure to see the potential of each individual when preconceptions or prejudice get in the way. The other is related: sometimes it takes individuals who are subject to the preconceptions or prejudice, thrown together for some reason (purposefully, through serendipity or other means), to mutually unlock the potential and power its fruition.

These individuals can often have singular talents which consume them in some way and lead them to ignore more mundane social or personal needs and habits. Think of Einstein, the brilliant theoretical physicist, who often could not recall how to get home after walking about and pondering a problem for hours, who didn’t bother combing his hair … or to wear socks.

Perhaps this ability (or inability?) to pay much attention to personal or social issues and norms – and further, not giving them attention in others — clarifies and focuses attention on some hidden potential buried in outside-the-box thinking, ideas, and visions.

One example is Johann Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Who are these guys? Tycho Brahe was the court mathematician and astronomer to King Frederic II and known throughout scholarly Europe at the time as the most knowledgeable person in the realm of the sky and the stars. He had meticulously and obsessively documented the movement of the planets, the moon, and the positions of all the stars that populated the nighttime skies. This repository of data and knowledge Brahe put together was in and of itself a marvelous feat of that or any time. He was a man of some means and had a world class observatory and institute of science and mathematics that he oversaw. It was home to many scholars and served to advance and spread knowledge about the heavens.

One young man who came to work with Brahe was Johannes Kepler. Where Brahe excelled in the detailed and meticulous world of scientific observation, Kepler was a theoretician who excelled in the world of conceptualizing and synthesizing many points of observation and fact.

Interestingly and by contrast, Brahe was an imposing figure – physically and in demeanor. He was seen as aristocratic and despotic, passionate and very eccentric. Kepler was thin, almost sickly, very near sighted, neurotic and disheveled. His father had been a solider for hire and his mother was an accused but acquitted witch who was said to enjoy psychedelic drugs. Perhaps the one common trait both had was a driven nature that conveyed to others arrogance and self-centeredness.

Kepler came to see that the observed facts Brahe had cataloged about the position and movement of the objects in the sky did not support the still widely accepted model of Aristotle and others that said the Earth was the center and the Sun and planets revolved around it. Nor did Brahe’s data support the newer model of Nicolas Copernicus (that Brahe believed in), developed by Copernicus a century earlier. Copernicus’ model rightly put the Sun in the center and Earth and the other planets orbiting around it. Copernicus’ model while correct generally, was flawed however, as it said the Earth and the planets traveled in perfectly circular orbits.

Kepler’s irritable and confrontational nature though made it difficult for him to get others to listen to his views and ideas. It was Brahe, for less than altruistic reasons (he feared his pupil might surpass him), who framed a challenge and focused Kepler on a part of the problem which led to a breakthrough model of the universe. One that is used to this day.

Brahe challenged Kepler to determine a model and equations that would accurately predict the path of Mars’ orbit. He knew that since Mars was close in proximity to Earth that a very precise model would be required to make accurate predictions. Mars would be the true test of Kepler’s ability to prove what he had been grumbling about. Kepler boasted it would take him 8 days to meet Brahe’s challenge. 8 years later, Kepler was still working out the solution.

Eventually, Kepler did come up with the model and equations to prove that the orbital path of Mars about the Sun was elliptical, not circular. Indeed the orbital motion of all the planets in our solar system can be described as elliptical. An interesting footnote is that Brahe died not long after issuing the Mars challenge to Kepler and did not live to find out whether his pupil met the challenge – and find out that indeed the student far surpassed the teacher in fame and stature.

Johannes Kepler is a key figure in the scientific revolution. His work provided one of the foundations for Issac Newton’s theory of Universal Gravitation. Imagine though if Brahe and others would have let their impressions of him lead them to disregard or sideline him. It can be argued that what he discovered might just have been found later and if so, today, 400 years later, we would hardly notice the difference or care if someone other than Kepler got credit.

It should be noted however, that in Kepler and Brahe’s time they were just emerging from a time well known as the Dark Ages. A time of scientific repression and repression of many other insidious sorts. A time in which someone of Kepler’s mind and approach would have been summarily dismissed – or worse – declared heretical.

The Dark Ages lasted more than 1000 years.

Odds are you nor I are currently working with or know the next Johannes Kepler. Yet we’ve all known or know people who have talents, sometimes singular and amazing, that fight to shine beyond personal faults and social awkwardness. Many of us have failed to recognize these talents. Either in hindsight or in the moment we chose the easy path of discarding the whole person, along with their potential, to avoid dealing with their perceived negative traits. As a leader, colleague, friend, and mentor I for one want to do a better job of dealing with others on their merits, even when they are hard to see, and resisting the easy path of avoidance or disregard.


Working Together: Great Potential Revealed

Spring and summer have been busy work-wise, and lazy otherwise. The combination of hard work and the opportunity, through abundance of summery weather and a relaxing time away with family, to do nothing much has also given me time to read some interesting books.

Recently I’ve gotten hooked on science and history – in particular the rise in the early 20th century of quantum mechanics in physics. I have been amazed at how individually brilliant these scientists were and how incredible their vision and discoveries were. Imagining and then doing the math and experiments to prove what they imagined, in a time with no computers, little funding, and few sophisticated laboratory tools is the epitome of the human spirit and thirst for knowledge and understanding.

What I’ve also learned that was true and critical to the discoveries made was the collaboration and sharing that occurred. There were plenty of rivalries and some conflicts but given the stakes – and the potential for fame – there was more openness than secrecy. These remarkable men and women – Einstein, Curie, Fermi, Szilard, Meitner, Oppenheimer, Dirac and many others – were of varying nationalities and located across Europe, plus America and Asia. Again in a time of no computers or internet, they made a conscious investment – which was non-trivial given the communication challenges of the age – in publishing their discoveries, writing to each other regularly, and attending formal and informal gatherings where theories, approaches and findings were presented and debated.

They seemed to know that their ideas were worth far less if they hid them. They knew they’d be more valuable if they invited others to learn about them, debate or challenge them and add to them. Or perhaps that their individual ideas and theories were just small parts of a huge body of unknowns that one of them could not possibly explain alone. If they wanted to be successful – be part of explaining the universe – they had to cooperate with others.

Together they were discovering more deeply how the universe works, at the atomic and then sub atomic levels. Imagining and then proving that atoms existed and contained electrons, protons and neutrons. Imagining and then proving that even smaller things existed such as quarks, gluons and other interestingly-named particles. Imagining and then proving that atoms could be split – and fused. Some, such as Einstein, at times wished they’d never had their great thoughts or published them — since it led in 1945 to the deaths of more than 100,000 Japanese citizens in a matter of seconds with dropping of bombs. Bombs with innocent sounding names like Fat Boy and Little Man.

Yet there is no denying that there have been many positive aspects to what these people discovered and helped the world to understand. It has and continues to change the world as we know it.

And their approach to innovation and knowledge sharing can teach us a great deal about what can happen when the potential of new ideas is fueled by a spirit of cooperation and sharing for the common good.

If you are interested at all in what I’ve been reading, here’s a few selected titles:

The Story of Science: Einstein Adds A New Dimension by Joy Hakim – actually a great middle school to early high school text book. If all children had books written by and teachers like Joy Hakim, we’d have more kids interested in science. Her writing is fun and informative.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson 

A Short History of Almost Everything by Bill Bryson