By Michaël Bikard
Ideas often emerge as twins. Newton and Leibniz famously claimed to have invented calculus around the same time. Darwin and Wallace stumbled upon the idea of evolution through natural selection even though they were working on different continents. Bell and Gray both claimed to have invented the telephone in letters that arrived at the US Patent Office on the very same day. Hollywood observers might have noticed that very similar movies—think “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits”—often come out within a few months of each other (McIntosh 2018).
The phenomenon of twin ideas has been known for centuries (Merton 1961) yet remains something of a mystery. It clearly tells us something about how new ideas emerge, but what? And what are its implications for researchers interested in studying creativity and innovation?
I explore these questions in an article published in Strategic Management Journal, which begins by outlining how simultaneous discoveries can be used to conduct “twin studies of new ideas”. The intuition underlying this method is simple. In the same way as human twins enable us to understand the impact of the environment on people (since they essentially have the same genetic material), “twin studies of ideas” can help us understand how different environments shape the future of an idea.
The paper outlines what is meant by the notion of an idea whose time has come, or is “in the air”. Previous studies have highlighted the role of the scientific and technological frontiers, which vary little even across large geographic distances, and the importance of cognitive frames—ways of seeing the world—that can be shared by different people living hundreds of miles away from each other (e.g., Kuhn 1959). The phenomenon of idea twins suggests that creativity and innovation are not purely intellectual processes that take place in the minds of geniuses. Rather, they develop at the intersection between the mind of the individual and the world they live in. People have the same ideas because they live in the same world.
Idea twins can also teach us a lot about how new ideas are rewarded. In a society that emphasizes science and technology – notably in the business world – coming second could carry a hefty price tag. Idea twins can be used to examine this assumption in detail. While Elisha Gray never achieved the fame and fortune of Alexander Graham Bell, co-discoverers are not always forgotten (e.g., Cozzens 1989).
In the paper I describe an algorithm that makes it possible to collect datasets of idea twins in science systematically and in an automated manner using open sources. A century ago, Ogburn and Thomas (1922) at Columbia University published the first large scale dataset of idea twins. Their list sparked criticism, and this may have thwarted the development of a fruitful stream of literature on the topic. By listing thousands of recent instances in the article, I hope to revive their heritage and inspire future research on this fascinating phenomenon.
Cozzens, Susan E. 1989. Social Control and Multiple Discovery in Science: The Opiate Receptor Case. State University of New York Press.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1959. ‘Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery’. In Critical Problems In The History Of Science: Proceedings Of The Institute For The History Of Science, 321–56. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.
McIntosh, Steven. 2018. ‘The Strange Phenomenon of “Twin Films”’. BBC News, 2 April 2018, sec. Entertainment & Arts. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-43371881.
Merton, Robert K. 1961. ‘Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science’. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105 (5): 470–86.
Ogburn, William F., and Dorothy Thomas. 1922. ‘Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution’. Political Science Quarterly 37 (1): 83–98.