The Power of Creative Disruption

Laptop theft is an immense international headache, one that can devastate the lives not only of owners but of others' whose personal data, or corporate secrets, are at risk. But even it can have positive unintended consequences, as Dennis Overbye's profile of the physicist Erik Verlinde and his possible breakthrough theory of gravitation suggests:

That inspiration came to him courtesy of a thief.

As he was about to go home from a vacation in the south of France last summer, a thief broke into his room and stole his laptop, his keys, his passport, everything. "I had to stay a week longer," he said, "I got this idea."

Up the beach, his brother got a series of e-mail messages first saying that he had to stay longer, then that he had a new idea and finally, on the third day, that he knew how to derive Newton's laws from first principles, at which point Herman recalled thinking, "What's going on here? What has he been drinking?"

When they talked the next day it all made more sense, at least to Herman. "It's interesting," Herman said, "how having to change plans can lead to different thoughts."

One anecdote may prove nothing, but it suggests a lot, that the uninterrupted stream of information and new ideas via the Web may be blocking us from developing better ones our own. Thought experiment: might Verlinde have developed the same idea on vacation if he had simply left the computer at home and brought just notebook and pencil instead?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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