The Myth Of Unique Ideas

What do calculus, the telephone, oxygen and sunspots all have in common? These are discoveries or inventions, of course, but are further united by one peculiar fact: they were all discovered or invented by at least two different people at the same time and completely independently…

The Science Of Multiples

A recent article in the New Yorker provides an interesting account of the history of scientific synchronicity and proposes that ideas are not necessarily unique insights of genius minds, but rather that they are inevitable products of an era.

There are many instances of the same scientific leap occurring at roughly the same time in entirely unconnected places. An attempt to document these events, which are referred to as ‘multiples’, was made in 1922 by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas. They found 148 instances of simultaneous independent invention or discovery that could be referred to as major scientific advances.

Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland. There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England.

The invention of the telephone is credited to Alexander Graham Bell, who filed a patent for this on February 14, 1876. However, had Bell been struck by a meteorite on his way to the patent office that morning, we would still have had the telephone – because just a few hours later on that very same day, an inventor named Elisha Gray filed a patent for a telephone of his own.

Walking The Line Between Plagiarism and Multiples

These scientific ‘coincidences’ raise many interesting issues regarding the inevitability of progress and the definition of genius; however, such multiples have long been at play in the realm of music.

The issue of plagiarism and copyright is thorny at the best of times, and it is important to protect creative output from being unfairly exploited. However, it’s also important to nurture and encourage creativity.

I’ve mentioned before that no song is written in a vacuum; each musician is informed and inspired by every song they hear in their lives, to a greater or lesser extent. The key to creating ‘original’ music is not by doing something that nobody has ever done before, but rather to do something in a new way, with a new voice.

Non-musicians may find it hard to believe that two musicians could come up with the same melody completely independently; but scientists and musicians will probably understand that this happens all the time.

It’s vital for the continued development of musical artistry that copyright laws don’t punish ‘music multiples’ as if they were plagiarisms. No matter what song you choose, you could find an earlier work that matched it closely enough for a musicologist to deem it legally liable. Fortunately, any plagiarism or copyright lawsuits tend to be directed only at artists who are visible enough to be able to afford to fight back; so, for the moment at least, the bedroom artist is free to compose as she sees fit.


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