In 1865 Gregor Mendel presented his groundbreaking work on plant hybridisation to the Brunn Natural History Society… and for the next 35 years, nothing happened. When it was finally rediscovered in the early 20th century, it became the basis of the science of genetics.
What impresses me about this story is the 35 years of neglect. Could such a big idea go unnoticed for so long now? I really doubt it.
We’re witnessing an ever-increasing fluidity of knowledge, which moves more easily and quickly than ever before. First, the internet makes it possible to communicate ideas instantly. Then it encourages you to proclaim them openly, to everybody, not just the group of specialists in your area (who, as happened in Mendel’s case, often don’t get it). The playing field is now inclined towards immediate open outcry.
This revolution is accompanied and catalysed by another—the representation of knowledge itself is evolving. It isn’t only academic papers to the natural history society but charts, diagrams, websites, films, documentaries, newspaper stories, radio programmes and so on. These are all different ways of both disseminating and understanding, and they engage different types of intelligence.
As an example, look at David McCandless’s stunning website Information Is Beautiful (and the lovely book of the same name) which organises complex bodies of facts and figures into memorable visual patterns. Thus organised they mean more than they did, because you understand them as gestalts, as whole shapes.
More knowledge; better ways to handle it. The process isn’t just additive: it’s synergistic. When pieces of knowledge come into contact with each other they multiply like Mendel’s pea plants, fuelling an exponential growth of intelligence.
The powerful fecundity of ancient Athens is now the world condition.