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This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

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Steven Johnson is an American popular science author and media theorist whose work discusses the intersection of science, technology, and the human experience. He frequently writes for popular periodicals and has received critical acclaim for his books.