Pedstrian and Profound
For a long time I, like most people, thought that many of the great thinkers of eons past were so great because they were brilliant and had stunning insights that revealed something fundamentally new about the world. This is true, but it presents a deceptive, reductionist about how they became famous. Most of the time, their work got the time of day not on its own merits, as if they simply published it and were lauded as geniuses who'd cemented their place in history henceforth. Many of them displayed startling and shocking amounts of what today we call hustle or resourcefulness. These entrepreneurial qualities are not typically associated with great thinkers, but I believe are central to why these people, and not other equally smart people, went down in history. In short, these people are so great not just of their ability to grapple with the profound, but also because of their ability to navigate the mundane and pedestrian obstacles that encumber modern "entrepreneurs" trying to enact change in the world. This is a list of such examples, added to as I come across them.
Nuclear Physics & the Manhattan Project
- Einstein and Szilard patented a EM-based fridge, experimental physics is to real physics what a rails/django app is to computer science: success depends more on creativity and energy than knowing advanced material.
- When Szilard mentions being “above” joining wood pieces together “like a painter” on the experimental front in Berkeley, Fermi stops collaborating with him (importance of being very good at both pedestrian and profound).
- Similar with Bohr spending long coordinating architectural plans for his new Institute in Copenhagen and haggling prices & recruiting people etc.
- Also similar with Leo Szilard doing radioactivity experiments at Bart’s hospital--think of the persuasiveness/networking that must have gone on behind the scenes to convince a hospital to let a rando do experiments with radium (and this non-science-related-skill was crucial as it gave him the initial publications that led him to Oxford).
- Alex Sachs (banker) delivering fission letter to President being crucial as kickstarting the whole process and it came down to the scientists knowing the right banker to make something happen (analogous to technical founders seeking funding).
- When scientists weren’t sure if Sachs delivered letter, Szilard arranged intro to Compon (MIT), contacted businessmen from before through refrigerator deals, found people to cold reach out to through newspapers, etc, all corresponding to hustle associated with getting intros to VCs in SV today which is seen as such a big and important skill but to the masterful physicists was not something they cared about thinking formally about, but was just something natural on their missionary quest to discover the fundamental reality of the universe.
- Technical innovation in a resource constrained system was the theme during atom bomb wartime as well as SV today: Manhattan scientists had to ask for money from gov, Germany tried to source heavy water in context of invading Norway, all of the eng challenges associated with creating the first plant seem similar to the resource-constrained, people-intensive innovation that happens in software startups today--except of course, death was an option in the 20th century.
- France persuading Norway to lend heavy water but Germany failing to, setting them behind in research.
- Frisch planning the dragon experiment, with such a creative setup--allowing a ball of U235 to fall and be supercritical for a subsecond (reaction slowed down by making it uranium hydride, not pure U235), not scientifically advanced but so inventive to think up. Re: clever prototypes that test the fit between theory and experiment in a fast and cheap manner.
- When Szilard wanted to make a final push at talking to the President about deploying nukes, and FDR died, he got in touch with a mathematician who had worked in the Kansas City political circles, got him to intro Szilard to the people there, stunned them with grandiose physical ideas and they arranged a meeting with the president at the White House (since Truman came from Missouri). Renaissance Florence
- Michelangelo managing a team of artists and apprentices through creative competition, negotiating affordable prices and paying enormous amounts of detail to sourcing quality materials, recruiting talented up-and-coming artists, marketing and branding his ability, pandering to wealthy Medici patrons. He knew his crew and their relationships with each other, choosing project teams to optimise chemistry.
- Leonardo would loiter around public courtyards looking for ugly people with distorted facial features, and then would chat them up, befriend them, invite them to his home so he could spend dinner silently studying their faces and ingraining their subtle details in his mind, all the while entertaining them. As soon as they left, he'd use this newfound inspiration to draw his grotesques. An astonishingly creative and charismatic way of overcoming the inspiration problem. I can imagine if some entrepreneur had done stuff like this en route to starting a successful company, VCs would be hailing them as the epitome of "resourceful" and "inventive", but things like this were throwaway actions taken for granted amongst the great Italian masters of antiquity.
- Michelangelo would make a sublime drawing of an ornate part of a cathedral to be build on one side of a paper, and then draft a letter ordering bushels of grain for his oxen on the other side.