I spend most of my time trying to build the future with science and technology. But for many years now I’ve also had two other great interests: people and history. And today I’m excited to be publishing my first book that builds on these interests. It’s called Idea Makers, and its subtitle is Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People. It’s based on essays I’ve written over the past decade about a range of people—from ones I’ve personally known (like Richard Feynman and Steve Jobs) to ones who died long before I was born (like Ada Lovelace and Gottfried Leibniz).
The book is about lives and ideas, and how they mix together. At its core it’s a book of stories about people, and what those people managed to create. It’s the first book I’ve written that’s fundamentally non-technical—and I’m hoping all sorts of readers without deep technical interests will be able to enjoy it.
There’s a common stereotype that techies like me aren’t interested in people. But for some reason I always have been. Yes, I like computers and abstract ideas and those sorts of things very much, and I certainly spend a great deal of my time on them. But I also like people, and find them interesting. And no doubt that has something to do with why I’ve chosen to spend the past 30 years building up a company that is—like any company—full of people.
One of the things I always find particularly interesting about people is their life trajectories. I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor many people, and I hope to have had a positive effect on many life trajectories. But I also find life trajectories interesting for their own sake—as things to understand and learn from.
Idea Makers is in a sense an exploration of a few life trajectories whose intellectual output happens to have intersected with my own. Some of the people in the book are extremely well known; others less so. I had all sorts of different reasons for writing the pieces that have ended up in the book. Sometimes it was to celebrate an anniversary. Sometimes because of some event. And sometimes—sadly—it was because the person they’re about just died. And although I didn’t plan it this way, the sixteen people in the book turn out to represent an interesting cross-section. (Yes, it would have been nice to have a bit more diversity among them, but unfortunately, with my subjects being from past generations, it didn’t work out that way.)
So what have I learned from the explorations in the book? The way the history of science and technology is told it often sounds like new ideas just suddenly arrive in the world. But my experience is that there’s always a story behind them—and usually the story is long and deeply interwoven with the life of a particular person. Even the person themself may sometimes not realize just how important their own life trajectory is in the formation of an idea. But if one digs down, there’s usually a whole long thread to be unearthed.
Some of the people in this book I personally knew, so I was able to watch the stories of their ideas unfold over the course of many years. But for the historical figures in the book I had to do research. I’ve done a certain amount of historical research before—notably for the history notes in A New Kind of Science. But I have to say it’s gotten much easier to do historical research in recent years—particularly with so many historical documents now being scanned and searchable—not to mention the advent of large-scale computational knowledge and knowledge-based programming.
It’s rather common to come across what at first seem like mysteries. How on earth did so-and-so manage to figure out such-and-such? One could conclude that it was just a miraculous flash of inspiration. But in reality it almost never is. And indeed my own life experiences have shown me over and over again just how incremental the process of coming up with ideas actually is. One develops some intellectual framework, from which one comes up with conclusions or tools, which then let one extend the framework, and so on—at each stage incrementally generating ideas. And I have to say I’ve found it a lot of fun to try to discover those intellectual missing links—that let one see just how someone went from here to there to manage to arrive at a particular idea.
The story itself is usually interesting—both historically and personally. But I’ve also found that knowing the story of how an idea came to be almost invariably lets me understand the idea itself more deeply.
Ideas are ultimately abstract things. But something I’ve noticed is that their origins are often surprisingly concrete and practical. One might imagine that the best way to arrive at some new idea would just be to think abstractly long and hard. But the stories in the book—and my own life experiences—suggest that a much more common path is something quite different. Instead of heading straight for an abstract goal, what often happens is that the trajectories of people’s lives cause them to work on solving some practical problem. Needless to say, most people will just be satisfied if they solve the practical problem, and will go no further. But some will try to generalize it, and build up an abstract intellectual framework around what they have done. And that, in my observation, is where a great many important new ideas come from.
As I’ve studied the lives and ideas of the people in the book, I think I’ve learned a lot that I can apply in my own life. Perhaps most important is just knowing so many stories of how things worked out in the past—because these give me all sorts of intuition about how things I see today will work out in the future. Even though they’re separated by many details and sometimes centuries, it is remarkable how similar many of the personalities, trends and situations in the book are to ones I see all the time.
The stories in the book involve both triumphs and tragedies. But in the end, I find them all inspiring. Because in their different ways they show how it’s possible to transcend the daily details of human lives and create ideas that can make persistent contributions to our world.
It’s been fun writing the pieces in the book. Of course, there’ve been plenty of challenges. But I feel good about the extent to which I’ve managed to decode history, and get the true stories of how things happened—as well as paint accurate portraits of the people behind them. I’ve had the privilege of personally knowing some of these people; others I’ve come to know only by studying them and poring through what they wrote. I’ve learned a lot—and I’m hoping that with this this book I can pass on some of it, and in particular, communicate something about what it takes for people to make ideas, in the past and in the future.