Where do brilliant ideas come from? When reporters ask Tim Berners-Lee about the moment he conceived of the World Wide Web, he can't answer. He hasn't forgotten, it just never happened. The idea percolated in his mind for nearly a decade, based on a desire to organize massive amounts of data shared between connected computers. He needed ideas of others to buzz around him and he needed an image that would make his idea understandable. His “stack” of information became a “mesh” before eventually becoming a “web.” The cliché did not hold true: His moment of insight, as it turns out, wasn't the result of a single flashbulb going off in his brain.
In his sixth book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” popular science writer Steven Johnson tries to dispel the notion of the “eureka moment.” As with nature, new concepts, like the Internet, slowly grow out of old concepts. They don't spring forth from nowhere. Darwin's theory, for instance, was built on centuries of observation, including his own. During his fateful voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin also discovered that atolls, islands made of coral, were created through the lives and deaths of tropical marine organisms, hardened bodies built up on one another. This key image, according to Johnson, gave Darwin a picture for his epic explanation of how life emerged. Using natural science's tendencies to build upon itself, as well as examples of major innovations in science, technology and even art, Johnson makes a case that ideas beget ideas, which means would-be innovators don't need an ivory tower; they need a crowd.