How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

The history of creation, invention, and discovery can be summed up succinctly: it involves a ton of hard work. For every great development, for every paradigm shift, for every innovation, and for every breakthrough, there were countless hours of effort. Hypotheses were tested and invalidated, prototypes created and destroyed. As much as we are enamored by so-called “strokes of genius,” the reality is much more mundane: creation takes ordinary effort and persistence. Ashton traces the developments of several historically significant innovations and shows that while we may perceive them as overnight successes, all of the people involved spent years on the problem before arriving at a remarkable result. This is a liberating reminder that you don’t need a special talent to make an impact, just perseverance.

Overall, the style of the book reminds me of Malcom Gladwell’s famous books: a series of anecdotes strung together to form a compelling narrative. That said, Ashton’s citations are numerous and thorough. The book is easy to read and quick to finish. Recommend.


Guns, Germs, and Steel

All I could think about while reading this book is that a much more appropriate title would be “Plants, Animals, and Geography.” Alas, I bet the publisher would have vetoed such a bland choice. In the end, those are the three key factors that influenced the long term success of every civilization on the planet. Ultimately, yes, guns, germs, and steel allowed one civilization to “engulf” another but the reason the dominant civilization had guns, germs, and steel in the first place was due to prehistoric luck. It found itself with plants that were amenable to farming, animals amenable to domestication and geography that enabled the extension and expansion of the young civilization when it was ready.

History unfolded the way it did, paraphrasing Einstein, not because any one civilization has (or had) smarter people than the others. But rather, the aforementioned plants, animals, and geography, provided a sort of head start to the civilizations that, in hindsight, appear “better” and they were able to spend more time working on the problems, challenges and technologies that ultimately developed into guns, germs, and steel. This is a reassuring conclusion. It means that if we could teleport prehistoric hunter-gatherers from one region to another we would still find that a civilization based in Europe ultimately engulfs much of the world. And more importantly, this conclusion renders racism that proclaims the superiority of one genetic group over another baseless.

Following the high-level but thorough analysis of how the modern world came to be, Diamond couches his conclusions a bit. He recognizes that there are some notable outliers that don’t fit the pattern he describes. China, in particular, which stepped backwards from its position as technology leader suggests that plants, animals, and geography were only a starting point. There were and still are a multitude of factors that impact the longterm success of a civilization.

After spending quite a bit of time on this book (it’s dense, dry and long) I’m left wondering about the utility of this knowledge. The author’s conclusions about racism are heartening and the discussion of technology/idea diffusion seems relevant to the distribution of information in large organizations—something he talks about a bit in his second edition follow-up. Something to ponder…