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Inspiration or Perspiration

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Whether its inspiration or perspiration that lies behind our thoughts, ideas and inventions, it counts for little if someone else gets the credit. On the other hand, it depends who that someone else is, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Albert Einstein is responsible for many quotable quotes, and held responsible for many more that he never said. A case in point is the Thomas Alva Edison quote about genius being 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, which is often attributed to old Al. A web site called Survey Central even put the matter to the vote, and the relativity man got the credit by a single vote.

The question immediately arises: why do we forget the origin of a famous quote, despite the fact that it came from the man who invented the light bulb, the gramophone player and the telephone? If he can’t get the credit for it, can anyone expect their genius to be remembered in centuries to come?

The answer is, of course, Yes, although with a big BUT.

If we take the Einstein example for a moment, we find that Al is not merely remembered 50 years later for his genius, but is remembered to the extent that Time Magazine named him its Man of the Century. Had Time been around at the turn of the 19th century, it would probably have chosen Edison. Meaning that creative genius is often valued above military and political genius in the long term.

But when it comes to the stuff of popular culture and what I will call popular trivia, we live in a moment-by-moment world. The ideas and styles of today will not be remembered a century from now, except as notes and images in encyclopaedias and history books. Styles of humour, TV drama and pop music will be all but forgotten. Who said what and when will become part of the melange of sound bites that will swirl about like steam over the mirror of the new century and mist up the understanding of the next generation.

In other words, it will be pretty much the way it is on the Internet right now, if you rely on the multitude of unofficial and uninformed sites to lead your way.

It will be a time when people won’t be sure if it was a Kennedy or a Bush who said not to ask “what America can do for you”” and whether it was Neil or Louis Armstrong who first stepped on the moon. The Beatles will be filed near Beethoven in the classical section, and Monty Python will be confused with the Tiger Moth.

But the people and their discoveries that truly changed our lives won’t be forgotten. Alexander Fleming and penicillin for one. Crick and Watson and their unravelling of DnA for two. The Wright brothers for another two.

And then there’s Henry Ford and mass production. Alan Turing and the computer. Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. William Shockley and the transistor.

Whoa … William who? We forget Shockley precisely because the transistor is a component in a set of more prominent inventions that have received far more “”mindshare”” over the past 50 years, from the microcomputer to the Internet. Yet, through its ability to convert electric current into binary data, it made the digital age possible.

What this really tells us is that, while DNA and Boeing are about the nature of our lives, PCs and the Internet float on the surface as popular trivia awaiting the Next Big Thing.

In the same way, the names of Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby, who perfected the microchip, and Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who created the Internet Protocol that made the Internet possible, will recede into the mosaic of a myriad names that lay claim to one or other corner of digital innovation.

If it is any consolation to them, does anyone remember for what Einstein won the Nobel Prize? No, not for the theory of relativity. It was for Photoelectricity (he described how light could behave both like a wave and like a stream of particles, thus inventing quantum physics). Don’t worry, I also had to look it up. That didn’t make him the man of the century, though. It was also his boundless imagination and spirit, the same spirit that made him one of the great crusaders of peace despite helping to develop the atomic bomb.

Another quotation that we can safely attribute to him is: “”Imagination is better then knowledge””.

That’s pretty rich coming from a guy who couldn’t figure out his income tax form and once used a $50 000 cheque as a bookmark and promptly lost it.

You say you know the feeling? Well, being absent-minded is not enough to get you remembered a hundred years from now, but Einstein’s flaws are still some consolation when your marvellous inventions, thoughts and ideas are not recognised right now, let alone going down in the annals of history.

There is a little of the Einstein in all of us. So, too, is there a little of the Edison in all of us. Sooner or later, someone else will get the credit for something wonderful we said or did. Let’s hope it’s someone who deserves it as much as Einstein.

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