Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Collaborate and Win (a Nobel Prize)

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

I must admit, the idea of the lone genius is alluring. For some reason, perhaps even more so in the United States, where independence has historically and culturally been highly prized, the idea of the individual innovator continues to be especially compelling. We want to believe.

Maybe our understanding of innovation is simplified if we can attribute its outcomes to specific people. Either we’re able to figure out for instance what made Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, or Guglielmo Marconi tick, and thus can unlock their secret formulas and techniques and replicate their innovative ways. Or we chalk up their innovations to pure genius that we have no hope of ever duplicating ourselves. The first approach seems a bit reductionist. The second a bit fatalistic. Neither is likely an accurate depiction of the truth however (whatever that means).

For as much as we – me included – want to put Steve Jobs on an innovators pedestal, we cannot ignore the likes of Steve Wozniak (or the team at Xerox PARC for that matter). For as much as we want to believe in the individual genius of Bill Gates – and I do believe he is – we cannot ignore the likes of Paul Allen. We can choose to attribute the World Wide Web to Tim Berners-Lee, and Napster to Shawn Fanning. I know we want to. Doing so certainly makes the writing of history easier and our communication with one another simpler.

I have no doubt there were and are in fact lone geniuses in our midst. I cannot honestly speak to history however. And I have no desire to rewrite it. But more often than not I believe, especially in today’s world, innovation is a collaborative endeavor.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore.

Although it’s much easier to talk only about Mark Zuckerberg, rather than Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes, we must acknowledge that innovation is a collaborative endeavor.

Apparently the Nobel Foundation increasingly thinks so too.

The 2009 Nobel Prize in physics was announced today. It was awarded to Charles K. Kao “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication” and to Williard S. Boyle and George E. Smith “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor.” Since 1901, with only a few exceptions, the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, has awarded each year a Nobel Prize for achievement in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

Today’s announcement concerning Boyle and Smith made me wonder how often the Nobel Prize in physics, and also chemistry, and physiology or medicine were awarded to collaborators rather than a lone genius.

The data are rather interesting.

In the first half of the 20th century (1901-1950), seven groups of collaborators were awarded the prize in physics. Note that in some years, as is the case in 2009, an individual may also have been recognized in addition to the collaborative effort. And also note the prize in physics, for various reasons, was not awarded in the years 1916, 1934, 1940, ’41, or ’42.

In the second half of the 20th century (1951-2000) by contrast, 31 groups of collaborators were awarded the prize in physics. Even with some sort of adjustment for the unawarded years in the first half of the century, this seems like a dramatic difference.

And from 2001 to 2009, collaborators in physics were recognized in every year.

How about Chemistry?
First half: 5
Second half: 21
And 5 times since 2001 (2009 hasn’t actually been announced yet)

How about Physiology or Medicine?
First half: 10
Second half: 38
And every year since 2001

Hmmm. Interesting.

How should we interpret such information?

Perhaps innovation in more recent times has become harder or more complex and requires more brain power, more people. Perhaps it’s simply not as easy to innovate these days.

Yet innovation has never been easy I don’t think.

Perhaps instead these days we are better able to recognize and are simply more willing to acknowledge the true nature of innovation. Collaboration.

1 comment:

C. Engdahl said...

This just in - collaborators also won the prize in Chemistry this year. Two Americans and an Israeli scientist won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for atom-by-atom mapping of the protein-making factories within cells — a feat that has spurred the development of antibiotics.

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