December 20, 2019

Map Showing Tycho Brahe's System Of Planetary Orbits Around The Earth 1660-1661 : Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

*This piece was originally published on April 12th, 2019*

Loonshot (n): a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged

We all know of moonshots, a grand idea we can get behind. But we sat down with Safi Bahcall, a physicist and former biotech entrepreneur, to understand a counter term he came up with: loonshots. Bahcall claims many ideas and innovations, when they are first proposed, are seen as mere fantasies from the minds of slightly (or very) crazy people. From the telephone to the computer, several game-changing ideas were turned down — in fact, microwave radar, which detected German U-boats at sea and helped us gain the upper hand during WWII, also, initially, fell under the radar. Who knows how many countless, similar innovative ideas have been dismissed? In his new book, “Loonshots - How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries”, Bahcall wants to change the structure of how we accept and cultivate these possibly, life-changing ideas.

Three Takeaways:

  • Bahcall believes the current structure of most workplaces, where we celebrate rank and hierarchy, has created an environment in which shooting down risky ideas has become  commonplace. In the fight to climb to the top, we promote individual achievements over rewarding teams that work together to propose innovative ideas. Bahcall suggests we should reward people for creating successful projects and proposing risky ideas in order to stimulate a more innovative culture.
  • Before the western Enlightenment, it was China, India and Islam that dominated intellectual thought and invention. China invented a printing technique long before Gutenberg. So what lead to this shift? The scientific method is about undermining authority, and the Chinese, Indian and Islamic loonshots were often quashed by authorities. On the other side of the world, loonshots that were emerging in the West had a better chance of being nurtured by wealthy patrons.
  • In some ways, the tables are turning again. Bahcall believes America has been the dominant hub for innovative ideas over the last 70 years, because of federal research funding. But recently, the US has been pulling back on such programs. Countries such as China have been aggressively investing in research and technology, posing a serious threat to this Western dominance.

More Reading:

Safi Bahcall, Loonshots, China, entrepreneurship, history, Business, WWII

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