☞ The Import and Export of Ideas

The Power of Cross-Pollination

File:Hinman collator.jpg
A Hinman Collator.

Some of you might recall my little web tool Blink Microscope that I wrote about last year. If you don’t, please feel free to check it out, but my focus here is on the origin of the name of the web app: it derives from a device used in astronomy that allows the user to “blink” between images of the night sky and discover minor differences. The blink microscope, also known as a blink comparator, was even involved in the discovery of Pluto.

I was therefore excited to learn that (via Alan Jacobs’s wonderful newsletter) that this technology was also used in a domain far removed from astronomy. Specifically, a similar device, known as the Hinman Collator, was used in the humanities to find minor discrepancies between different editions of texts. Imagine a scholar blinking between different editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and watching the changes leap out:

Arthur M. Johnson, who would take over the commercial manufacture of the collator, wrote that Hinman developed the basic design of his machine after studying something called the “astronomer's microscope.” The device to which Johnson was referring is properly known as the blink comparator and was invented in 1904 by the German instrument-maker Carl Pulfrich. The basic principle behind the blink comparator is the same as that of the Hinman. Two objects, in this case photographs of the same star field taken on different dates, are set up in the machine, superimposed, and then viewed alternately. Any difference between the images calls attention to itself by appearing, just as on the Hinman, to dance or move about. The most famous use of the comparator was made by C. W. Tombaugh, who discovered the planet Pluto with it in 1930. [quotation from here]

This is an example of the import and export of ideas. It’s the ability to take scientific concepts, technologies, or theoretical frameworks from one domain and apply them to entirely different ones. And as the world has become more specialized, this ability has become that much more important. It helps reduce reinvention of ideas, and shows that there are certain fundamentally similar insights that stretch across fields.

This import and export of ideas is also a particular skill, and one that is often undervalued in our specialized world. It requires a broad knowledge, as well as a comfort in going deep into specific areas, to learn what is known already in that domain, as well as what the holes are in that knowledge. It’s essentially an analogy-making skill, recognizing that the concept of evolution can be useful in understanding technological change, or that certain mathematical processes can help us understand the growth of the World Wide Web. This ability to make analogies and import ideas from one field and export them to another is the kind of skill that is useful in everything from scientific research to the startup and venture world, and even in writing for general audiences. As described by the subtitle of a book coauthored by Douglas Hofstadter, analogies are “the fuel and fire of thinking.” And this ability to bring ideas from one field to another is a fundamental way that we innovate.

So go out and do some import/export of knowledge.

A few things worth checking out:

Until next month.

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