Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Breakthrough How-To, Part 1

"Thomas Kuhn" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
Thomas Kuhn

Probably the best-known name in the field of science history is Thomas Kuhn. This post is mostly going to be background on Kuhn's paradigm of paradigms, and some extension of his ideas into industry. If you're familiar with Kuhn and you can see how startups fit into his ideas, feel free to skip to the next post.

Kuhn's book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" argues that "science" is really an amalgamation of two very different processes. The first part of science is "normal" science, the everyday work of most people in scientific research. Normal science incrementally develops existing theories. Things like measuring the gravitational constant, simulating the folding of specific proteins, isolating molecular species, deducing evolutionary trees, or smashing together high-energy particles all fall under normal science.

The second part of science consists of breakthroughs. In contrast to normal science, a breakthrough is not incremental. It is a significant change to the existing model with the potential to explain a wide variety of previous-poorly-understood phenomena. Discoveries like the heliocentric model of planetary motion, Newton's theory of gravitation, Einstein's big four papers, evolution, DNA, polymers, the periodic table, and high-temperature superconductors all fall under breakthrough science.

Abstractly, Kuhn characterizes these two types of scientific work in terms of paradigms. A paradigm is a model or framework for understanding, like the DNA -> RNA -> protein framework in biology or Newtonian mechanics in physics. I mostly use very big paradigms as examples, because most people have heard of them. However, paradigms can be much smaller as well, like the Cooper pair theory of superconduction. Normal science operates within a paradigm, applying and extending existing ideas. Breakthrough science creates a new paradigm.

For example, when superconductivity was first discovered, the existing paradigm of electrical resistance could not explain it. Researchers began to explore the phenomena, experimentally measuring superconductivity in many different materials and developing many different models which could explain certain aspects of superconductivity. Eventually, Cooper realized that quantum behavior of electron pairs at very low temperature could neatly explain the accumulated experimental results, and this became the central paradigm of superconductivity (the old electrical resistance paradigm was not abandoned, we just needed a new paradigm for these special materials at low temperatures). Cooper's model drove decades of research in superconduction, allowing researchers to predict which materials would superconduct at which temperatures and to develop new superconductors with useful properties. Later, high-temperature superconductors were discovered, and Cooper's model could not explain it. The cycle began again, and today researchers are still experimenting with different materials and models in search of a good model of high-temperature superconductivity.

This is the usual progression of science. Most scientists spend most of their time experimentally measuring things, developing partial models, and applying current knowledge create useful new things. This is normal science. Every now and then, something big shakes up the paradigm: the discovery of superconductors or high temperature superconductors, or the discovery of a new theory like Cooper's theory of superconduction. This is breakthrough science.

Kuhn talked quite a bit about the social aspects of the two types of science. People doing normal science aren't always happy when someone comes along and upsets their paradigm. Kuhn's book is great if you want to hear more about that. Meanwhile, I'm going to take it in a different direction.

Although Kuhn mostly stuck to academia, the patterns of normal vs breakthrough science apply outside of the sciences. Industries have their own paradigms, and these are regularly upset, often by technical breakthroughs. The lightbulb, the transistor, the assembly line, containerized shipping, stock options, personal computers and the internet, radio broadcasting, the iPhone, Facebook... each of these was a breakthrough which shook things up and created a new paradigm in business. Throughout the twentieth century, the pace of breakthrough has accelerated, and large businesses today find themselves under pressure to produce breakthroughs just to keep up. In recent decades, we've even seen the emergence of a new type of business which is defined by explicitly seeking a breakthrough: the startup.

On other end of the spectrum, non-breakthrough work is on the decline. Things within the current paradigm are things we understand well, and things we understand well are precisely the things which can be automated or outsourced to the lowest bidder. Traditional management is quite good at taking simple, well-understood tasks and getting people to do them quickly and at low cost.

I would argue that every field out there has its paradigms and its interruptions. Some are far more stable than others, but the pace of breakthrough has only accelerated for more than a century. If the past two centuries are any indicator, the future will see more people spending more time explicitly working toward breakthroughs, and normal within-paradigm work will become increasingly automated.

There's a problem, though. Historically, most people have spent most of their time on normal work rather than breakthrough work. Consequently, our education system, our management structures, and our work culture are all optimized for non-breakthrough work. The breakthrough process is largely mysterious; we still don't understand what sort of background or environment will make them happen. To that end, the next post will talk about what sort of knowledge, environment, challenges and thought patterns lend themselves to breakthroughs.

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