Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I was listening to a lecture by Steven Johnson on TED. He has a new book out called, "Where Good Ideas Come From". He showed a photograph of the first coffee house (circa 1650) in England. It opened at the beginning of "The Age of Enlightenment", a time when great ideas spewed forth. He gave a great explanation for the timing of the coffee house and the age of enlightenment. Up until the time of the coffee house, the water wasn't potable. The only beverages available for drinking were alcoholic. Wine in the morning, beer with meals, gin and more wine in the evening. When coffee (and tea) was brewed and made drinkable, this coffee house opened and people gathered there in a huge, chaotic mass. And guess what? They weren't smashed!!!

Coherent, creative and brilliant ideas flowed with the non-alcoholic drinks! Mr. Johnson claimed little wonder at the exchange of ideas on architecture, politics, religion and so on, by bright, sober minds at what history has come to call the age of enlightenment.

He discussed something else interesting. He talked about the launch of Sputnik way back in the day. The Russians had done it! They had placed a satellite in orbit. Meanwhile, back at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University located in Laurel, Maryland, a bunch of cute (I'm certain) geeks were sitting around discussing the geekiness of it all and loving it. A couple of them, while sitting in the cafeteria (probably not too different from that chaotic, idea-passing coffee house in 1650 London) wondered if they could hear the satellite. Obviously it was making a noise...they wondered if they could find it. So, they asked their coworkers and they said they hadn't thought of doing it, but it sounded interesting so lets try it! So, Geyer and Weisenbach (that were their names) go to Weisenbach's office to play around with his stuff. Weisenbach is a "microwave" specialist...so they "microwaved" their way through the atmosphere in search of a sound. They found the bleeps and started to record their time stamps...I suppose that's what you would do..whatever that is....you would do it.

Now they're wondering if they can track the location of that satellite based on its beeps and time stamps. So, they went to their offices, Geyer and Weisenbach, and by using the Doppler effect relative to their own location, they could discern its trajectory and figure out its orbit and location at any given time. Sure enough, they did. Not long after that, they were called in by their boss. He said he had heard that they were playing around with the beeps of Sputnik and could locate a moving location in space from their fixed location at the APL in Maryland. They said, "sure" and he asked them if they could "reverse" it? Could they locate a fixed location on the ground from the satellite? So they went back to their offices and sure enough, they could do that. In fact, it was even easier to find something on the ground from a satellite than it was to find the satellite from the ground!

That was good, said their boss, because he had just built an entire fleet of nuclear submarines and it was difficult to put a missile in downtown Moscow when you didn't know where your sub was. And THAT, is how GPS was born.

"The same GPS that your cell phone may have used to find the nearest coffee shop", Mr. Johnson said...it goes round and round and round.

The point being, intellectual property is typically "protected" and hidden, when in fact, it needs to be shared and built upon, so that we all benefit. Mr. Johnson ended his talk with this quote, "Chance favors the connected mind".



Gorilla Bananas said...

Do you believe men who say they have great ideas when they're having a dump? I never think of anything when I'm emptying my bowels, it would spoil the enjoyment.

The Katzbox said...

You don't fling, do you?

Brown and Serve said...

What an interesting posts. Loved this.

Abby said...

i get smarter with every post of yours that i read. thanks for "sharing". :)

Eli Bowman said...

That is really cool....love the quote at the end to.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Hah, you're pretty cheeky for a doctoral student! You'd better learn to curb your tongue during the viva.

The Katzbox said...


Loving everybody...even the gorilla in the room.