Relativistic Innovation

Day 138 Week 20 Q2 Friday, May 19, 2023

Am I talking today about innovations in physics? Well, no, and maybe a little bit, yes. By now, the concept of relativity has entered the mainstream so much that you can find more YouTube Videos about it than you would ever have time to read. This gets me off the hook from having to explain it here, anyone can go online and be buried with explanations. But what does this have to do with Innovation?

Innovation, like invention, is a relative or, dare I say, a relativistic phenomenon. This means it depends upon a reference frame, sometimes roughly called context to nonscientific types. If the US Patent Office is willing to grant new patents for old inventions occurring in new domains, then the innovation police should certainly accept that what is new here may be old there.

Say a raft is invented on a Polynesian island and then sailed across an ocean to a new land that has never seen a raft before. The people in the new land would certainly think the raft was an innovation. This happens all of the time in every land and in every domain. If you spend your life as a geophysicist searching for oil in the earth by analyzing the reflections of sound waves to indicate different densities in the earth’s crust and below, you would be very familiar with the mathematics of the signal processing you were performing. You might be very surprised to discover that the same breakthroughs were being made in analyzing speech by performing speech recognition using reflection coefficients. 

And as a grad student in Digital Signal Processing, I found I could use the same math to perform musical analysis, working toward score transcription of sound waves. I then found a friend who was studying Fourier optics, and my girlfriend at the time, who was studying econometrics to predict the impact of oil pricing in one market upon, say, gas pricing in other markets, were also using very similar mathematics as were my ocean engineering and oceanography friends trying to model the flow of water and even mud in Long Island sound.

I was stunned to find that the researchers in these widely disparate fields were all using very similar equations but describing them with different nomenclature each thinking they were doing something unique and new. That was when I discovered innovation was relativistic.

This significantly lowered the bar in my mind associated with innovation and breakthroughs. It seems that by getting out of your silo or town or genre, you could apply common conceptual underpinnings to new fields and even large hunks of math and computer code if you just learned to change the names. 

If you know a lot about any field, you can probably apply some of it to other fields and be considered very innovative.  Try it. The more you know about the world, the more you can contribute to other fields. Get out of your silo and explore other neighborhoods.