“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow figure, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” – Johnson (31)
The adjacent possible explicates how simply following an idea, and digging deeper into the subject matter, can lead to wonderful things. I’ve always been a person who never settled for “just because…” I always wanted to know why things were they way they were. What circumstances and scenarios led to this happening? The adjacent possible would tell me to dig deeper, and to find out why. Who knows what I might find, or what ideas may be sparked in the process. The important thing is that just by analyzing and searching for understanding, there are endless possibilities of what I might find or what I might discover. There are so many different ways to reach the same objective, its all about taking that first step and digging deeper. This opens up new doors of discovery and inspiration, which we may never have gotten if we just settled for “just because…” The adjacent possible reveals to us, how the world is capable of extraordinary change, but we’d never know if we just settled for the basic answers. The adjacent possible is what keeps discovery interesting and reminds us how truly capable the world is of change.
“What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” (Johnson 31)
I find this to be a very powerful statement that provides some real inspiration. To me, this is the idea that anything can happen at any moment but no matter what it was, good or bad, it happened for a reason. It is the idea that change is natural and must be embraced rather than fought because if you fight it you will lose. This idea gives hope to those who are going through a rough time because it lets them know that things change and will continue to change so they may be down now but they know that it won’t always be that way. The world is always changing but these changes can only be certain things that can happen. Therefore, these changes must make sense according to the laws of nature and cannot possibly happen under the circumstances. The idea that the world is ever changing is a beautiful perception of reality and how we live our lives.
“All of us live inside our own private versions of the adjacent possible. In our work lives, in our creative pursuits, in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit – in all those different environments, we are surround by potential new configurations new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.” Johnson, p40
What I found interesting about this quote was the notion that we all reside in a personal bubble of the adjacent possible. If I live in the middle of the desert surrounded by a sea of sand and rocks, I would have access to a drastically different adjacent possible than someone living in a bustling city. I think it’s important to consider that the adjacent possible exists on separate planes for humans individually and as a species. Humanity’s adjacent possible expands as a result of individuals creating new technologies overtime and integrating them into the global network of possibility.
“After a formidable series of measurements in his Davis lab, Kleiber discovered that this scaling phenomenon stuck to an unvarying mathematical script called “negative quarter-power scaling.” If you plotted mass versus metabolism on a logarithmic grid, the result was a perfectly straight line that led from rats and pigeons all the way up to bulls and hippopotami.” Johnson, p8
Johnson goes on to describe how Kleiber’s equation to determine metabolic rates in differently sized species applies to the “metabolism” of cities. I never really thought of any city being one big organism, but in a way the thought makes sense. Cities exists as large networks of people working constantly to make the city grow and thrive. As more people come together within the confines of a city, they’re bound to form bigger and brighter ideas when so many unique minds have access to one another.
“The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore” – Johnson, page 33
Our history and culture has been changing as time goes on. We are always making discoveries about life and we are always innovating the way we live. Our culture is made depending on where each “tribe” is and it derives from the history every group of people is. Our culture and history come together. As humans we are always trying to make new discoveries to live better and it always comes from the adjacent possible. Every time we discover something it is only with time that we will open a path to learn something else. For example in medicine. We always start with small discoveries which eventually lead to a discovery that can save lives.
“Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts”
The concept of building ideas with one another in the adjacent possible really stuck out to me. It reminded me of an experience I had last summer when I toured Google’s New York office. Google’s office structure is not like an ordinary office. The office has wide open spaces with big tables for a collaborative feel. Employees are allowed to dress casual and have daily group meeting with people in the office and use Google hangout to video chat with employees in different countries. All of the employees at Google are from different backgrounds and come together everyday to learn from each other. Free food is available at all times for each employee. There is also a fitness center and a video game area in the offices. Google takes an innovative environment to a whole new level. I hope that many companies can form innovative offices like Google.
Here is an article that I found very interesting about Google:
“The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.” (33)
Earlier in the chapter Johnson mentions that evolution could be looked at as the constant struggle to explore the adjacent possible, the idea that certain adaptations can only happen after mutation has occurred, a mutation that makes that adaptation possible, before this mutation has happened, the adaptation may never actually happen. Using this thought process, the adjacent possible can be used for human technology and innovation; although a technology may be thought to be impossible, it could simply be that the technology required to transition to this even more preposterous technology, needs to be discovered first.
“The Meulaboh incubators were a representative sample: some studies suggest that as much as 95 percent of medical technology donated to developing countries breaks within the first five years of use”- Johnson 27
This is simply stunning to me as I had no idea that this was the case. When I hear about medical donations to developing countries I have nothing but praise and appreciation for the companies, but now I see them with a new perspective. The developing countries need a way or assistance to develop technology, especially a kind that caters to their environment, not just to be given other’s technology. The human baby incubator made from car parts was truly amazing and a revolutionary idea itself. This makes me wonder what other innovations people can come up with the cater to specific needs in developing countries that can also be renewed, developed, and improved upon easily by the people themselves using their own resources. I can imagine what a difference some kind of water purifier would be to locals and their children if they could build it themselves for minimal costs!
Chapter one of good ideas uses an example which really made what the Adjacent Possible an easy concept for me to grasp by talking about the above scene in Apollo 13. As such I thought I’d share the scene because it just perfectly for me summed up what the Adjacent Possible is as an obscure concept. I also just love this movie because it shows how adaptable humans are and how we have really done some amazing things as a species. This movie is also a classic which spawned some really great lines and is scientifically accurate which is really cool. All credit goes to the movie Apollo 13 linked above.
A connection I found from reading chapter 1 of “Where Do Good Ideas Come From” was the statement “we take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into one new shape” to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. For the most part, people only know Watson and Crick as the people accountable for discovering the helical structure of DNA. However, after learning about so many scientist whom provided Watson and Crick the tools to piece together the puzzle, they were truly the very last piece that took the ideas of all the previous scientist. Without scientist such as Chargraff, Rosalind Franklin, Levene, etc. Watson and Crick wouldn’t of known that A and T match together, or that DNA was a helical structure without Rosalind’s x-ray diffraction picture of DNA, or the simple fact that there is a sugar attached to the nucleic acid. Before I learned about these previous scientist and their experiments in depth, I only gave Watson and Crick credit for the discovery of the structure, but I quickly learned there was so much more put into discovering the structure than I had previously known.
“Sunspots were simultaneously discovered in 1611 by four scientists living in four different countries” (Johnson 34)
I’ve never given much thought to what would happen if multiple people discovered the same thing, at the same time. Many questions arose from this piece of trivia. Who receives the credit? Why is it that they all happened to discover it around the same time? Did some event happen to influence their research? Did they gather their information from the same sources? It was interesting to learn that 4 unrelated scientists were researching something so far from Earth, in 1611.
“Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients… The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.” -Johnson, pg 42
I was really struck by this passage at the end of chapter one. I really love how inclusive Johnson always is with his discussion of innovation and good ideas; although this is a biotechnology course, so much of what we can learn from this book is applicable to other fields. This part in particular reminds me of how I’ve learned to get over writer’s block. When I get stuck writing a story, it’s tempting to sit and stare off into space, hoping a good idea will come to me, some sort of magical revelation of how to continue the story. But like Johnson says, “[sitting] in glorious isolation and [trying] to think big thoughts” usually won’t get you anywhere. After all that thinking and thinking and thinking, I’m often left with what I started with: a blank page. I’ve found, and Johnson seems to agree, that the solution to writer’s block is simply to write. Maybe I won’t solve my plot problem right away, but I’m giving myself more material to work with. I’m getting “more parts on the table.” Some of those parts may end up going unused, but if I give myself enough parts to work with, eventually I’ll find enough bits that I can piece together, maybe in a way I didn’t expect.
This passage offers wonderful advice for problem-solving, whether you’re a scientist, a writer, or something else entirely.
“François Jacob captured this in his evolution as a “tinkerer”, not an engineer; our bodies are also works of bricolage, old parts strung together to form something radically new.” (Johnson, p29)
I found this particularly interesting because it is intriguing to think of our bodies as a bunch of parts strung together for a purpose. Each piece of our body is essential, and works towards the productivity of the human body as a whole. Right away I thought of the body systems. Our body is made up of a group of different systems and they all work together to keep us functioning properly and healthily. Below I attached a very cheesy body systems rap video. I haven’t seen it since my freshman year bio class in high school. Although childish, it talks about all the body systems and what they are for. Watch it you may get a laugh out of it.
In Chapter 1, “Reef, City, and Web”, Johnson writes, “Science long ago realized that we can understand something better by studying its behavior in different contexts.” Following this statement Johnson explained that it is sometimes easier to grasp a concept when we stop focusing and researching so much on the concept, and instead relate it to something we know. For instance, non-scientists understand cities and how urban life functions much more than the complex ecosystem of the coral reef. By showing the similarities between the two, as Johnson does further down in his text, a non-scientist is able to comprehend how the coral reef functions through her knowledge of cities and urban life.
What Johnson means is that we understand the scientific world through metaphors. Comparing and contrasting our current understandings of the world with our new experiences or information is how we learn.
Just as Maya Angelou explains her depression as a caged bird, something more tangible for her readers, Robert Hooke named the small organisms that make-up all living things after the tiny rooms of monks called “cells” so that fellow scientists will understand his discovery.
Johnson continues, “…It turns out that we can answer the question more comprehensively if we draw analogies to patterns of innovation…” This essentially confirms that in their discoveries (and attempts to break that “adjacent possible”) scientists try to hold on to what they know at the same time. While they travel from room to room through the doors that Johnson describes, they leave a bread crumb trail for others (scientists or not) to follow them. They recognize that not everyone will see the discovery in the same way, nor does everyone think like a scientist. Therefore by explaining scientific theories, processes, or discoveries in tangible and non-science terms, scientists can reach a broader audience and be more widely accepted.
The use of metaphors and imagery by scientists to explain science makes them poets.
“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries” – Johnson, p31
I think this quote is important because we were reading about how the adjacent possible is “a shadow figure hovering over the edges of the present state of things,” but this quote shows us that in order to take advantage of the adjacent possible, and explore new rooms in the mansion, we must take that first step ourselves. In order for the adjacent possible’s limits to grow, we must push those limits and see where we can take them.
“‘The list of land animals,’ [Charles Darwin] writes, ‘is even poorer than that of the plants.’… Yet just a few feet away from this desolate habitat, in the coral reef waters, an epic diversity, rivaled only by that of the rain forest, thrives.” pg. 4
Here, in the introduction of Where Good Ideas Come From, Charles Darwin notes that in a place where there is little domestic animals or plant life, there thrives a coral reef habitat. This idea is then explained to be called Darwin’s Paradox: coral reefs make up .001% of the earth and yet they contain almost 25 of marine species. Though I already knew that coral reefs were thriving, I was very intrigued and surprised to discover the statistics surrounding them. It led me to wonder, what is it about the coral reefs that make them able to sustain such a variety of life?
“We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as $40,000 incubators, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage” (Johnson, 29).
This passage really stood out to me. It is so true — the best ideas do not always have to be the ones that are unprecedented. Sometimes, the best ideas come from prior knowledge and experience; from taking what you know and using it to your advantage. For example, Facebook, one of the most successful websites, started as a small idea that eventually blossomed into what it is today. (The movie, The Social Network, portrays Mark Zuckerberg’s transition from small idea to success very nicely). There are so many expectations in the world today, and this quote is just a nice reminder that you do not always have to be the best of the best to succeed.