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Operations Research in the Air

My colleague Steve Spear has a posting on the “Against Monopoly” blog (not against the board game, but commentary on intellectual property issues) regarding a New Yorker article entitled “In the Air” by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell makes the point that many advances have been simultaneously made by multiple groups. From the discovery of dinosaur bones to the telephone to cancer treatments, there seems to be something in the air that gives the right time for a discovery. The New Yorker article gives a number of examples:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

“There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England,” Ogburn and Thomas note, and they continue:

The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens and Symmington.

We see this in our own field when multiple groups seem to solve longstanding open problems almost simultaneously, often years after the problem was formulated. Such happenings inevitably lead to accusations and recriminations, with cries of plagiarism and other nefarious goings-on. Of course, ideas are stolen and the stress of publication can lead to short-cuts, and these are rightly decried, but I think there is something to this “in the air” phenomenon. Many simultaneous discoveries may be just that: simultaneous discoveries.

The Against Monopoly blog points out that these simultaneous “inventions” are often the outcome of a tremendous amount of public buildup. The “invention” is then just a small step, with a corresponding willingness to fight a patent battle. As the blog says:

I certainly came away from the article believing even more strongly in the Boldrin-Levine [see here] contention that intellectual property rights just aren’t necessary when you have the shoulders of giants to stand on.

In operations research, we saw this with our most famous patent issue: AT&T’s patent for “Karmarkar’s Algorithm” for linear programming. I remember the INFORMS (ORSA/TIMS at the time) conference when this came out. Researchers were canceling their talks on the simplex algorithm, since it no longer seemed relevant. Doctoral students were ruing their choices, and giving up hope for a successful academic career since they had bet on the wrong horse. Of course, the algorithm had no such effect. Research on effective implementations of the simplex algorithm was spurred by the competition, and research on interior point algorithms moved quickly to respond. The field has been greatly enhanced by having competing techniques. The patent didn’t help this advance, and was not financially successful for AT&T (I do not believe), but Karmarkar’s algorithm was a beginning not an end.

But it wasn’t even a beginning. “Karmarkar’s” algorithm was actually a well-known nonlinear programming algorithm in disguise, with its roots dating to the 60s (Karmarkar announced “his” algorithm in 1984). This equivalence to known work doesn’t take away from what Karmarkar did. Believing that an approach more suitable for nonlinear programming would be efficient and effective for linear programming was a big step. And it made a huge difference on the field. But, in keeping with Stigler’s Law (no invention is truly named after its inventor), Karmarkar’s algorithm could really take on many other names.

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  1. […] Gladwell entitled “In the Air” had a second theme (I talked about the first theme:  the multiple near-simultaneous discovery of inventions):  the engineering of the sorts of insights that lead to invention.  Can you create an […]