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May 7, 2010
A Big Hole in the Ground

This last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to have dinner with a customer who happened to be in San Diego for business conference.  As I was driving, I couldn’t help but notice that there were several new high-rise building sites in the downtown area (my office and home are in the suburbs so I rarely find myself in the downtown area).
One of the most interesting aspects in building skyscrapers is that the first phase of construction is all about digging a big hole.  The contractor knows that they need to go in the opposite direction in order to build a strong foundation before heading upwards.  Usually the taller the building, the deeper the hole.
As I thought about this concept a bit, a new but similar thought stream occurred to me.  In track and field, there are several events such as the pole vault, the long jump and the triple jump where an athlete will begin by actually going backwards before launching forward.  By first going backwards, the athlete creates acceleration and momentum before launching themselves forward allowing themselves to travel farther than if they started from a stand-still.
With my mind now fully engaged in all types of thought on the subject of "great leaps", I began to think about how so many of the truly great discoveries in history didn’t come from a small iteration or re-engineering of an existing idea but rather an accidental quantum leap into something completely new.
The word "serendipity" was coined by the English Nobleman Horace Wadpole in 1754.  The general meaning of "serendipity" is the discovery of something important without really looking for it in the first place and is derived from the classic Persian fable "The Three Princes of Serendip".
I began to think about Christopher Columbus setting sail to explore a new route to India and stumbling onto a new continent (actually two).   He wasn’t looking for a new continent but found it nonetheless.
In 1928, the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered that a particular blue bread mold was acute at killing Staphylococcus bacteria when a piece of moldy bread in his laboratory happened to sit overnight next to a mistakenly open Petri dish containing the bacteria culture.  The accidental discovery of the antibiotic penicillin, which has now been used for nearly a century, is directly responsible for saving millions of lives previously lost to bacterial infections and diseases.
More recently, a European researcher at CERN (the European nuclear agency) wanted to find a way for researchers to be able to share data.  In 1989, Tim Berns-Lee wrote a proposal to his manager at CERN to create a method for better communication between scientists and academics.  His proposal was finally accepted (with several revisions) in 1990.  Berns-Lee called his new communication system the World Wide Web or better known as the Internet. 

The Internet has probably changed the world faster and more dramatically than any other invention (well...perhaps one can make an argument for the Gutenberg printing press).
These discoveries, along with thousands of others, helped to change the world.  Many were unintended and discovered serendipitously by explorers, researchers, scientists, and every day people. 
Every day people like you and me... 
What great discovery lies inside of each and every one of us?  How will we change the world?  
Food for thought, as you spend your weekend driving around town looking at big holes in the ground...

Thank you very much for your continued support of OptiFuse as we try to invoke the great inventions that lie in all of us.

Jim Kalb
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