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The Bearded Skeptic offers educated & insulated skepticism in a world full of BS. Content and opinions provided by the skeducator, William T. Kendal.

Interdomain Adaptation: The Secret Genius of Strategic Thieves


Philosophical thoughts, claims and predictions with a skeptical twist from the Bearded Skeptic.

Interdomain Adaptation: The Secret Genius of Strategic Thieves

Taylor Kendal

What does industrial fertilizer, memory foam, and the internet (via silicon dioxide) all have in common (besides all being awesome)? They're all products of Interdomain Adaptation. Very few revolutionary advances take place in isolation, and more common, are products of fortuitous timing and/or strategic thievery (and often both). The hijacking of ideas across domains should not only be pursued, but also encouraged, and unfortunately within education, this age-old tradition of fruitful robbery has been stifled for decades. The traditional tenure-soaked insulation that so many put promise in seems to have a side effect of also insulating from advancement and change.

Look no further than the following three examples to understand the unquestionable importance of Interdomain Adaptation, and hopefully with enough momentum, a revolutionary swell will bleed into the coveted domain of education and allow for some true progress to be made.

Industrial Fertilizer

During World War I, the science of chemistry evolved very rapidly (for obvious and sobering reasons), and among the key catalysts were German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, who developed a process to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a biologically available form—ammonia—using high pressure and temperatures. Their chief motives were of course militarily driven, providing the German army a means of producing a greater quantity of explosives, but time would tell that their genius had a more humane application. Flash-cut to 2016 and you find an adaptation of the same chemistry by modern agriculture to sustain one-third of the population on earth (the ubiquitous ammonia nitrate fertilizer). Ironic that the industry of agriculture interested in feeding (providing life) to all humans is reliant on an adaptation from chemistry with an earlier goal of achieving the exact opposite.

Memory Foam

During the 1960s, Chiharu Kubokawa and Charles Yost began work for NASA at the Ames Research Center designing a technology with the sole purpose of making sure that the Apollo command module and its astronauts could be recovered safely after landing.  He called this safety material "slow springback foam." Flash-cut to the 80's and hospitals had universally adopted the material for use in beds and wheelchairs. Just a decade later, the memory foam we know today started finding its way into bedrooms across America. The NASA super-foam of the Apollo era has even seen a recent adaptation by the NFL. From Science, to medicine, to sports, this Interdomain Adaptation is likely still in its relative infancy; let's just hope future intentions remain as honorable as saving lives and spilled wine. 

The Internet (via Silicon Dioxide)

The final example of Interdomain Adaptation involves vast strata of genius and strategic thievery. In Steven Johnson’s book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, he explores the unique history of silicon dioxide (that's silica or glass). He articulates, quite convincingly, a deeper interconnected reality for a handful of innovations we all take for granted. Though the earliest record of glass dates back 26 million years (a glass beetle found in King Tut's tomb likely forged on the Libyan desert by an asteroid impact), it was Johannes Gutenberg’s mid-1400 printing press which revolutionized the need for eyeglasses (his machine quite literally manifested the concept of farsightedness). Scientists then adapted the basic understanding of the eyeglass lens to create microscopes/telescopes (a seemingly simple adaptation of using the lenses in conjunction as opposed to independently). Further advances and more idea thieves led to early photography, television, and film, still later fiberglass, then lasers, all the way to fiber optics which revolutionized the internet and is responsible for allowing this very stream of consciousness to be available to anyone in the world. I can hardly do it justice...just read that book!

The World Wide Web is woven together out of threads of glass.
— Steven Johnson

If these examples don't convince you of the importance of strategic thieves, then you're either hopelessly myopic, or potentially a university administrator. As educators and designers of instruction, it's our moral imperative to seek out genius and fold it into our work for the betterment of our students (and ultimately humanity). My current work involves stealing and adapting the best practices and processes from the domains of entrepreneurship and Agile software design (see AIDNet), but that need only be the start of a long and fruitful relationship between education and any number of other divergent domains (some of which don't yet exist). We act like there's a secret genius to these strategic thieves, but I see no reason to be ashamed of standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us. Take a chance at learning their language, and you might be surprised by what they have to say...and knowingly or unknowingly share.