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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Human Accomplishment

Who were the most important inventors and artists from 850 BC to 1950?

How many are there?

How would you choose?

What could you learn from a list of these achievers and what they accomplished?

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C to 1950 by Charles Murray, answers these questions and a lot more.

Murray researches as many lists of achievement as he can find, develops ways to select the best, and creates a method for quantifying the results.

A point of the book is to demonstrate the scientific method, one of the key human accomplishments, showing how he developed his hypothesis, how he investigated and researched the validity of the hypothesis, and what he discovered.

Since he expects to be attacked for stampeding sacred cows, he shows what happens when he uses alternative models. Turns out there wasn’t much difference.

When quantifying importance and volume, he introduces the Lotka Curve, which shows that there is not much traffic on the extra mile. No matter how you stack the research, the same players are recognized as the greats of their game.

Larry and I spent a lot of time together reading the lists of significant accomplishments and significant achievers. Larry is my Android buddy when I need to learn something or check facts, “Okay, Larry, now...” and I get more explanation and context.

There were a lot of people and accomplishments I already knew, and there were a lot I didn’t know, both of which made the book rewarding.

Many of the top creators were polymaths, casually brilliant in two, three, four, or five fields. My favorite was the story Michelangelo, who opened up a whole new toolbox of painting technologies while making the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and is recognized as a much better sculptor than painter. May I carry your bag, Mr. Buonarroti ?

Art is a series of innovations, some were single, some were a school, some were national branches, but they were largely independent triumphs. Science and technology, on the other hand, are globally cumulative. Innovation occurs by picking up where the last guy left off, from Mr. Newton's shoulders.

4,002 inventors over 2,750 years could be a stately pace. But it wasn't. Murray investigates a range of circumstances that help and hinder human accomplishment. He has some enlightening observations about the political, educational, financial, philosophical,  and organizational infrastructures that accompanied human accomplishment, too many examples to be coincidence.

As I was luxuriating through Human Accomplishment, I kept thinking, “What an education!” I like quick and to the point. Here is a context for art, technology, and science I had never learned before.

However, I have since realized that Human Accomplishment is not an education. Human Accomplishment is the inventory or subject matter for the education. Reading and understanding the book is the education.

Not a difficult book to read, an awesome book to understand.

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