A 270 Year Old Mathematical Formula Can Teach Us A Lot About Innovation

Euler’s Formula

The focus of Stipp’s book is an equation that was first published by Leonhard Euler in 1748 but is still marvelled at today. It looks simple enough, with just five factors, but somehow manages to combine infinite series with geometry and strange “imaginary numbers” and somehow makes it all come out to zero simply by subtracting a one.

The Anatomy Of A Hunch

In the early 1990s, researchers at the University of Iowa performed an unusual experiment. Subjects were given four virtual decks of cards on a computer screen, each with cards that would either penalize or reward them in game money. After about 40 or 50 tries, the players got pretty good at choosing which were the best decks, although they couldn’t say why.

Working With Two Minds

Very few of us have the abilities of someone like Euler. In truth, very few in history can match his gifts. Still, we all build up a database of experiences and many of us attain significant expertise in one area or another. This knowledge often leads us to see connections that we can’t verbalize or validate effectively, but we feel strongly about.

The Power Of Truth

As noted above, there was no way for Euler to know what the practical value of his famous formula would be. He worked on it because he thought it was interesting and probably had some vague sense that the connections he uncovered were important somehow. Mostly, he was probably just seeking truth for truth’s sake.

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Greg Satell

Greg Satell

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.