Because biographies of famous scientists tend to
edit out their mistakes, we underestimate the
degree of risk they were willing to take.
And because anything a famous scientist did that
wasn't a mistake has probably now become the
conventional wisdom, those choices don't
seem risky either.
Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus
more on physics than alchemy or theology.
The impression we get is that his unerring judgment
led him straight to truths no one else had noticed.
How to explain all the time he spent on alchemy
and theology? Well, smart people are often kind of
But maybe there is a simpler explanation. Maybe
the smartness and the craziness were not as separate
as we think. Physics seems to us a promising thing
to work on, and alchemy and theology obvious wastes
of time. But that's because we know how things
turned out. In Newton's day the three problems
seemed roughly equally promising. No one knew yet
what the payoff would be for inventing what we
now call physics; if they had, more people would
have been working on it. And alchemy and theology
were still then in the category Marc Andreessen would
describe as "huge, if true."
Newton made three bets. One of them worked. But
they were all risky.