You can be a hero with a simple idea

Yesterday I mentioned someone who published a scholarly paper in 1994 for a technique commonly taught in freshman calculus. There’s been a lot of discussion of this (the paper, not my blog post) on the web. The general take has been that this was an egregious failure in the peer review system. No one recognized a simple, centuries-old idea. No one called up a high school math teacher and asked “Hey, have you seen this before?” All that is true, but here’s a different take on the situation.

The paper reinventing the trapezoid rule has been cited 75 times. It must have filled a need. Yes, the author was ignorant of basic calculus. But apparently a lot of other doctors are just as ignorant of calculus. The author did the medical profession a service by pointing out a simple way to estimate the area under a glucose-response curve. The technique was not original, and should not have been published as original research, but it was valuable.

Surely some doctors already knew how to find the area under a glucose-response curve. But apparently many others did not, and they learned something useful from the article. The article did some good, more good than original but arcane articles that no one reads, even though it was poor scholarship.

The author made a connection that not everyone else had made. This reminds me of Picasso’s sculpture Head of a Bull.

Picasso: Head of a Bull

All Picasso did was put handle bars on top of a bicycle seat and say “Hey, that looks like a bull.” His sculpture took zero technical skill, but it was clever. Was Picasso the first human to ever have this idea? Maybe.

Sometimes you can be a hero by taking what is common as dirt in one context and applying it to a new context.

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Three quotes on originality

Here are three quotes on originality I’ve read recently. I’ll lay them out first then discuss how I think they relate to each other.

C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory, as quoted in a blog post by David Rogstad.

No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.

Larry Wall, creator of Perl, in his talk Perl, the first postmodern programming language.

Modernism is also a Cult of Originality. It didn’t matter if the sculpture was hideous, as long as it was original. It didn’t matter if there was no music in the music. Plagiarism was the greatest sin. … The Cult of Originality shows up in computer science as well. For some reason, many languages that came out of academia suffer from this. Everything is reinvented from first principles (or in some cases, zeroeth principles), and nothing in the language resembles anything in any other language you’ve ever seen. And then the language designer wonders why the language never catches on. … In case you hadn’t noticed, Perl is not big on originality.

Paul Graham in the introduction to Founders at Work.

People like the idea of innovation in the abstract, but when you present them with any specific innovation, they tend to reject it because it doesn’t fit with what they already know. … As Howard Aiken said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

If you strive to be original, you might achieve it in some technical sense, but end up with something nobody cares about. Strive for authenticity and excellence and you’re more likely to do something valuable. But originality isn’t appreciated as much in practice as it is in theory.

Update: See this quote from Twyla Tharp on originality.