The World Is Full of Sleeping Beauties

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Grass, mammals, penicillin, John Keats. None was successful right away.

Grasses struggled along in patches here and there for some 45 million years before, rather quickly, unfurling, almost blanketlike, across the continents. Mammals, as we know, were furry blurs underground and underfoot for more than 100 million years before ascending to prominence—and then dominance. The life-saving drug penicillin was abandoned by its discoverer and lay mostly neglected for more than a decade before it was ever administered to a single patient. And now-revered Romantic poet John Keats sold just a couple hundred volumes of his poetry in his life—only entering the canon decades after his death.

In fact, many lasting innovations, whether biological or cultural, were no overnight success. Instead, they emerged and managed to persist, in the shadows, until the time was just right for them to step into the limelight.

So argues biologist Andreas Wagner in his new book, Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture. Wagner, a professor at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, and a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, came to biology not as a boy fascinated by newts or lichens, but as a teenager enchanted by the prospect of uncovering principles that guide the natural world. In the lab, Wagner has pioneered models of gene networks. In the author’s chair, he has probed the puzzling natures of innovation and creativity.

He said he originally came to the concept of “sleeping beauties” from conversations with artists and with scientists, many of whom are often frustrated by their lack of success. “I think every scientist has written a paper that he or she thought was going to rock the world,” he says. “And then once the paper comes out, nobody’s interested in it. So there are two readings of that. First: The paper just sucks and it’s not important. Or: It’s waiting to be discovered.” And in the lab, he and his colleagues have found evidence of these “latent innovations” emerging in the DNA of living organisms. So, for the wide-ranging book, he says, “I wanted to put all of this together.”


https://assets.nautil.us/sites/3/nautilus/jOYgwu0L-Courage_HERO.png?q=65&auto=format&w=1600&ar=16:9&fit=cropSuccess in nature and culture depends just as much on timing as it does on brilliance.



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