Priestly Believed in Randomness and Side Projects

Joseph Priestly, the 18th century theologian, philosopher, and inventor, embraced three concepts I've written about at length:

  • He exposed himself to randomness: try more stuff than the next guy; law of large numbers; insight at the intersection of seemingly unrelated ideas.
  • He maintained side projects: hedge bets; humility around being able to predict which particular project will be the big win; stay intellectually stimulated.
  • He experimented and iterated: many little bets over few big bets; learn by doing; adapt rapidly to changing conditions.

Priestly was never one for the grand hypothesis; he rarely designed experiments specifically to test a general theory….His approach was far more inventive, even chaotic. While the experiments themselves were artfully designed, his higher-level plan for working through a sequence of experiments was less rigorous, Priestly’s mode was to get interested in a problem – conductivity, fire, air – and throw the kitchen sink at it. (Literally so, in that many of his experiments were conducted in the kitchen sink.) The method was closer to that of natural selection than abstract reasoning: new ideas came out of new juxtapositions, randomness, diversity. Priestly would later credit the emerging technology of the period – air pumps and electrostatic machines – with helping him develop his distinctive approach: “By the help of these machines,” he wrote, “we are able to put an endless variety of things into an endless variety of situations, while nature herself is the agent that shows the result.

That's from Steven Johnson's book, as dog-eared by Russell Davies.

1 comment on “Priestly Believed in Randomness and Side Projects
  • Excellent post. Taleb’s advice is along the same lines in his books, Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan.

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