I recently visited Panama and learned the incredible story of how the indigenous Emberá people there helped to teach jungle survival skills to Apollo mission astronauts. It is a fascinating combining and contrast of ancient wisdom and modern technology, equipping the first men to go to the moon with insights from both realms.
Humans tend to have a natural reverence for old wisdom that is probably woven into our DNA. It stands to reason that people more willing to stick with the tried and true might have a survival advantage over those who were more reckless. Ideas that stand the test of time are, by definition, the ones that worked well enough to be passed on.
Paradoxically, to move forward we need to abandon old ideas. It was only by discarding ancient wisdoms that we were able to create the modern world. In much the same way, to move forward now we’ll need to debunk ideas that qualify as expertise today. As in most things, our past can help serve as a guide. Here are three old ideas we managed to transcend.
1. Euclid’s Geometry
The basic geometry we learn in grade school, also known as Euclidean geometry, is rooted in axioms observed from the physical world, such as the principle that two parallel lines never intersect. For thousands of years mathematicians built proofs based on those axioms to create new knowledge, such as how to calculate the height of an object. Without these insights, our ability to shape the physical world would be negligible.
In the 19th century, however, men like Gauss, Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Riemann started to build new forms of non-Euclidean geometry based on curved spaces. These were, of course, completely theoretical and of no use in daily life. The universe, as we experience it, doesn’t curve in any appreciable way, which is why police ask us to walk a straight line if they think we’ve been drinking.
But when Einstein started to think about how gravity functioned, he began to suspect that the universe did, in fact, curve over large distances. To make his theory of general relativity work he had to discard the old geometrical thinking and embrace new mathematical concepts. Without those critical tools, he would have been hopelessly…