It is common to tell stories of great discoveries. Hundreds of years later, we still talk about Galileo Galilei dropping balls of different weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shatter existing beliefs about the way objects fall. Textbooks tell the story of Sir Isaac Newton being struck by an apple and having a sudden insight about gravity. We learn about an inspired Charles Darwin developing a new theory evolution while watching finches on the Galápagos Islands.
The problem with these stories glorifying eureka moments is that — most of the time — they are not true.
In the book Science Secrets, my colleague Alberto Martinez, University of Texas science historian, roots through primary source documents to tease apart fact and fiction in these myths. For example, Martinez points out that 16th-century Italian historian Benedetto Varchi mentions tests of the idea that heavier objects do not fall proportionally faster than light objects in 1544 — twenty years before Galileo was born. Moreover, contrary to usual claims, Galileo later reported that objects of different weights fall at different speeds!
We often try to learn from these stories of success and failure. We seek the business equivalents of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin — legendary figures who will discover innovative ideas that will revolutionize an industry. It has become trite to repeat George Santayana’s quote that those people who do not learn history are doomed to live it again. However, by learning from myths rather than history, we may be doomed to fail by repeating a history that never was.
The key lesson here is that discovery myths are slanted to focus on great people and decisive events, so people can better relate to them. But by focusing on the individuals, we ignore both the contribution of others who played a role in a new idea, as well as contemporary culture at the time of the innovation. Often, there are many people toying with similar ideas, and it is the collective work of a community that gives rise to real innovation.
Yes, we should respect truth but a bigger question is what really matters.