The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny...’”

— Isaac Asimov

Matt Ridley, the British writer, calls himself a “rational optimist,” which today probably strikes many people — their health and finances threatened, their equanimity destroyed by the horrors of close confinement with family members — as an irrational coupling of adjective and noun. Nowadays, cheerfulness can be irritating. Ridley, however, is right.

For many millennia, artificial light was a luxury: In 1880, a minute of the average worker’s toil earned enough to purchase four minutes of light from a kerosene lamp. Then came innovation: the incandescent bulb, and successors. Today, a minute of work purchases 7,200 minutes (120 hours) of light.

In 1922, a government commission concluded that “already the output of [natural] gas has begun to wane.” In 1956, an expert predicted that U.S. gas production would peak in 1970. Until around 2008, the consensus was that cheap natural gas would soon be exhausted. Then came innovation: hydraulic fracking. Today, cheap gas has supplanted coal in electricity production. One reason is property rights — the mineral rights of local landowners. Ridley quotes an innovator: “Shale production was hotly pursued by many small companies resulting in a multitude of varied drilling and completion methods being implemented and tested across multiple basins.”

When, in August 1928, Alexander Fleming took a vacation from his London laboratory, a cold spell stimulated the growth of the fungus Penicillium, a spore of which, blown through an open window into the lab, landed in a petri dish containing a bacterial culture. Then a hot spell stimulated the growth of this culture — but not around the Penicillium, which killed proximate bacteria. When Fleming returned on Sept. 3, a friend watched him examine this result and heard him say: “That’s funny.” After various innovations, penicillin would radically reduce World War II deaths from wounds, thanks to a 1928 gust of wind.

An epidemic — polio — was worsening in the 1950s, from 10,000 cases in 1940 to 58,000 in 1952, when a Pittsburgh researcher, Jonas Salk, innovated a technique for growing polio virus in minced monkey kidneys. One thing led to another, and to a vaccine, and the almost complete eradication of polio.

These mind-opening vignettes are from Ridley’s “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom.” There are others:

Pre-coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 times as many people were flying as in 1970, when the number of air fatalities was more than 10 times higher than today. This safety improvement, Ridley writes, “has happened in an era of deregulation and falling prices. Far from leading to cut corners and risk taking, the great democratization of the airline industry over the past half-century, with its fast turnarounds, no-frills service and cheap tickets, has coincided with a safety revolution.” Increased competition also increased innovation.

In the half-century between 1960 and 2010, the acreage needed to produce a given quantity of food declined about 65% because of agricultural innovations. If this had not happened, most acres of forest, wetland and nature reserve would be turned to agriculture. Instead, most are increasing. Innovation has driven “dematerializing,” doing more with fewer resources: “By 2015 America was using 15% less steel, 32% less aluminum and 40% less copper than at its peaks of using these metals, even though its population was larger and its output of goods and services much larger.” There are more bank tellers — and they are doing more interesting things than counting out money — than before ATMs arrived.

It is serendipitous that the new book by Ridley, who has a keen sense of serendipity’s role in scientific and (hence) societal advances, arrives during the pandemic. “The main ingredient in the secret sauce that leads to innovation,” he writes, “is freedom. Freedom to exchange, experiment, imagine, invest, and fail.” The vast and lingering damage done by the global lockdown will include governments’ opportunistic expansions of their controls of almost everything, and an increased tendency of people to look to government for shelter from all uncertainties. But one enormous benefit may result:

There is an unflattering contrast between the tardy, lumbering, often blunderbuss response of many governments to the coronavirus and the nimble adjustments of individuals in their behavior and of commercial entities in their arrangements. So, perhaps there will be a healthier appreciation of the creativity of a free society’s unplannable spontaneous order.

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