How Einstein’s Big Idea Became Big

Back in school, when I was taught about Einstein’s theory of relativity and his famous equation e=mc2, I assumed that not only did he come up with the equation but that he somehow owned the various elements in it as well. Recently, I discovered that I had been grossly ignorant, thanks to a documentary called Einstein’s Big Idea.

Einstein did come up with the equation, but all the different components of the equation – e, =, m, c, square – are attributable not to him but to scientists who came before.

Robert Recorde, a mathematics textbook writer who aspired to make a name for himself, pioneered the symbol “=” in the 1500s.

In the 1600s, Danish astronomer Ole Roemer proved that light travelled at a finite speed.

In the 1700s, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier showed that while matters may combine and recombine into different forms, their mass remains the same. Nothing is lost; nothing gained. The universe is a closed system.

In the same period, another French person, this time a woman, consolidated the scientific world’s understanding of “square”. I can’t really explain what Emilie du Châtelet’s exact contribution was, but I think she interpreted the scientific works of her time and elucidated the concept of “square”. For instance, by increasing the velocity of an object by two times, one increases its energy not by two but four times.

Michael Faraday revolutionised the scientific world in the 1800s with his notion that every form of energy is connected, that electricity can be converted into magnetism, and vice versa.

Einstein’s own breakthrough came in the 1900s, but clearly he wouldn’t have been able to posit his theory of relativity if all the individual components of his equation weren’t already in place or weren’t well documented. His innovation was built on the rigourous experiments and findings and sweat and tears of all the scientists who came before him.

Today, organisations push the innovation agenda because they want to stay relevant and competitive. But more often than not they overlook what’s fundamental – managing what they already know. Let’s say we baseline an organisation’s collective knowledge at a given point in time. Thereafter, every time an experienced employee leaves with what she knows, every time lessons learnt from past projects are not recycled, every time documents get lost in repository, every time departments do not talk to one another, the baseline slips further down. How can organisations innovate if they have to recalibrate their knowledge baseline all the time?

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