I was watching a video clip this weekend in which Carl Sagan explains how Erastotenes, ancient Greece’s librarian at Alexandria, over 2,000 years ago, explained how he figured the earth was round. He did this noting that the shadows cast by columns in Alexandria and in another city 800 km away at the same time where not the same length. What prompted him to conduct the experiment was his curiosity trying to understand why at a certain point in the day, shadows disappeared (noon), meaning the sun was perpendicularly hitting the earth at that moment. The fact that this phenomenon manifested itself not exactly at the same time in two cities that far away signaled to the curvature, as opposed to the flatness of the earth. Paying someone to walk and count the steps between the two cities, and taking measurements of the shadows, he was able to correctly calculate the circumference of the earth. Trying to make sense of his methods, there are obvious questions that come to my mind, because it’s not like he could call his friend on a cell phone while in Alexandria waiting for the shadows to disappear while telling him “wait, wait, wait,…ok NOW, measure the length of the shadow, right now!…..”. He solved that some other way, you would have to watch the video to answer that question. In our exponentially more modern environment, I have concluded that sometimes we don’t give some of these very bright minds from antiquity the credit they deserve for coming up with ideas and methods which were vastly revolutionary and ahead of their time. They observed the world around them, they questioned simple things that others weren’t questioning, and it lead them to hypotheses which they devised methods to test and validate.

They didn’t always get things right. A century before or so, Aristotle proposed that life could spontaneously generate, from thin air. Maggots in rotting meat spontaneously generated. Tadpoles in a puddle of water did too. It took Spallanzani, two millennia later, to disprove this, by sealing one flask, boiling the contents, and noting that nothing grew if sealed, while something eventually grew if unsealed. In a funny, perhaps ironic way, he disproved Aristotle while proving him right. Yes, life comes into the broth from the thin air outside the flask if you let it come in.

We may think innovators today get to conduct their experiments in perhaps a more challenging environment. Beyond the close physical world around us, which we have been able to make sense of by discovering the rules that govern it, they must now make sense of the rules that govern people’s tastes, likes, opinions and preferences. Considering everyone as the cliched “world among him or herself”, entrepreneurs / creators / innovators today need to deal with thousands, millions, if not billions of “worlds” out there. The good news is, you can do that as Erastotenes and Spallanzani did, by looking at data. The smart ones know how to collect it, aggregate it, slice it, and dice it. We get to do the same at a larger scale, and instead of footsteps to measure we have computers.

Our View from the Top – September 17, 2019