Q: Is it possible to have a completely original thought?

Physicist: Nope!  At least, not for the last 27 years.

The last truly, verifiably original thought was had by Kjersti Skramstad of Oslo, in October of 1987.  She reported her insight immediately, as all original thinkers do, and since then there’s been nothing new under the Sun.  That stunning insight, by the way, was “curling ville være lettere med lettere steiner!“.

In 1995 there was a lot of buzz around the scientists at Bell labs; they briefly skirted originality before it was realized that their entire venture had been sketched out, beginning-to-end, by Claude Shannon in one of his notebooks almost 50 years earlier.  In fact, there has been a quiet but insistent push in some industries to remove the phrase “reinventing the wheel” from common parlance, under the assertion that it is now redundant and applies to all invention.

In scientific circles the concern is fairly minimal.  There are enough “loose pieces” around that scientists will still be making great strides for decades.  For example, by combining lots of boring animals to create awesome crimes against nature (hippogriffs, cockatrices, manticores, etc.).  Or by taking an ordinary thing (e.g., elevators) and adding the word “space” to them (e.g., space elevators).  The ideas may be unoriginal, but science still happens when you try them out for the first time.

Piano -> Space piano

Piano -> Space Piano.  Science marches on.

For we ordinary folk, original thoughts aren’t too important, but artists (for whom originality pays the bills) have been in a panic since the late 70’s when it first became clear that the well of new ideas was running dry.  In particular, 1978 saw the album “More Songs about Buildings and Food” produced, bringing the epoch of original composition to an unceremonious close.  There’s some hope that Laurie Anderson may have done something completely novel with her masterpiece “three minutes and forty-four seconds of white-noise while wearing an extraneous prosthesis” but some more pessimistic parties have already drawn parallels to John Cage’s 4’33”.  Time will tell.

Oddly enough, no politicians have noticed.  Like, at all.

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26 Responses to Q: Is it possible to have a completely original thought?

  1. Tom Woosnam says:

    What date is it today…?

  2. steve says:

    I would like to dispute the notion that Kjersti Skramstad of Oslo had the last original thought in October of 1987. While watching the 1984 Winter Olympics with my brother, he turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t curling be easier with lighter stones?”.
    Granted, he thought it and said it in English, and phrased his comment in the form of a question, but the THOUGHT was the same. Game, Set, Match.
    Also, every post I’ve ever read by The Physicist (1000’s) have had at LEAST one line funnier than the whole April 1 post. This is no joke.
    In other news, Blue Hills Observatory blue up today triggering an eruption which sent molten lava cascading…..

  3. Given the nature of this forum, one assumes that the answer given is facetious. One could assume that the question is also. Scientifically speaking, thought cannot be discerned without the thinker expressing said thought. Therefore the thought automatically becomes heresay. By definition heresay is not original.

  4. PJ London says:

    Dan just had a perfectly original thought “Heresay”
    “By definition heresay is not original.” Never before seen or heard, an over heard heresy.

  5. Doug says:

    If the Bell Labs were not original, then was Claude Shannon 50 years earlier? Or were his ideas originated by Adam?

    Though you can find something of a precursor to every thought stuff that was not is now. So there was some precursor to the telephone and some precursor to that. Someone once banged two rocks together. Is that supposed to remove all novelty from the telephone?

  6. Xerenarcy says:

    there are no original thoughts. all thoughts we have ever had have either been unknowingly repeated, or permuted from others’ thoughts/ideas/etc.

    therefore permuted thoughts are as close as you get to ‘original’ or ‘new’, but it is not the thought, rather the specific permutation of existing thoughts itself, that contains the possibility of being original. and despite this, somewhat ironically, we will never run out of ways to express the same ideas (at least in language; even if we tried we couldn’t exhaust every single permutation of some idea or thought).

    originality lives on exhumed from the trite.

  7. Eddie says:

    Not sure why you found the time to utter this collection of useless thought-patterns.
    Others present truly insightful and inquisitive PHYSICS comments. Hopefully, this will be the last of aimless, stream-of-consciousness word babble.

  8. Scott says:

    All kidding aside. Can a thought be a collections of ideas or other thoughts merged into one, similar to chunking in memory or mixing several colors together to make another unique one — or is that even possible. If there’s a way to break down a thought into its metaphorical 1’s and 0’s then perhaps nothing ever really is original. But since there is an infinite number of ways to mixing colors to produce an infinite number of other colors then originality can come from unoriginal ingredients so to speak. I guess it comes down to the definition of what a thought is or isn’t.

  9. Anthony Rose says:

    Actually, every thought first thought is original thought. 🙂 The second time someone thinks it, the first time stays original.

  10. Some Guy says:

    @Anthony Rose: Good one.
    @The Physicist: Nice how you made this post on April Fools…

    But why wouldn’t it be possible for a human to have an original thought? After all, the universe, let alone human’s time on Earth, hasn’t been infinite, so it should theoretically be possible to have a new thought, right?

  11. p says:

    The way I see it, of course there are original thoughts. People who insist otherwise feel to me as if they think they have figured the universe out or something. It is kind of like this, when you are born, you are original. Sure you could argue, as most do, that you are not original because you came from your mother and father who came from their mother and father, etc., down the line. But they are not actually you. Only you are you, exactly, and there was never you before you nor will there be you after you, exactly. So even if someone or some idea comes built upon things before it, the new person or thought is in fact original. It is certainly easier to dismiss everything as unoriginal, but to me at least, at “birth” each thought can be similar and/or built upon other thoughts before it and still also be original.

  12. eht says:

    Depends on your thoughts on what original means. Of course people are constantly thinking and/or looking for original thoughts so at least rarely this will happen. In the future it may be possible not to have an original thought thought though.

  13. Kay says:

    Unless it can be proven mathematically or by the laws of physics, how is it known if someone can have a completely original thought? It would be presumptuous to think otherwise. Where is the scientific proof to say one way or the other? Ask a Philosopher!

  14. Sab says:

    it’s like the word universe either there is a universe or there isn’t r language defines us by its dichotomy we need to break the bonds of language to fully understand the logic that is to say two equals infinity. In answer to the original question ~ If original means first, then there was only one original. And if a thought has to be expressed to make it original, then wouldn’t that just make it an original expression? I’m sorry I was wrong you can have an original thought you just can’t have “the” original thought.

  15. Echo Echo says:

    For an infinite universe,there are infinite possibilities…thereof originality hasn’t an end.
    Great posts,creative.

  16. Henk says:

    “there is nothing new under the sun”
    Ecclesiastes 1:9

  17. Gzoref says:

    Cute, but as Stephen Fry would say:

    “Imagine a piano keyboard, eighty-eight keys, only eighty-eight and yet, and yet, new tunes, melodies, harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of keyboards every day in Dorset alone. Our language, Tiger, our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of possible legitimate new ideas, so that I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” One sentence, common words, but never before placed in that order”


  18. Dominic says:

    A fter reading all of the comments as quickly as I could,my thought is that the universe is an establishment or a constant,which when at the origin was incepted or somehow came to being,that was the origin.But I personally feel that there is allways a neww origin,like a new day or new eternity as opposed to day and a new origin.There is allways a new begining…Of course thought depends on language,what is thought without language,an immage,a tree has a descrption and will allways be a tree,a tree is a thought,an existance.It is not a matter of originality,but,nor conception,but discernment,understanding and intergration of thought.

  19. timo69 says:

    Does it realy matter?

  20. Ike says:

    What is important is first define what we mean by Original thought. Then we can qualify what is original or not. Most things are just based on definition

  21. Venkat R says:

    Any thought, is a redundancy only. Without the information in the brain you cannot think..whether you do it conscious of this fact or not. All the information you have is gathered from outside using your 5 senses. Original ideas can from from your intuition which is pure intelligence that is within you…

  22. Cale says:

    Is it conceivable that our heads are merely an echo chamber for the things we observe and experience?

    “Originality” could be seen as impossible given that the human experience is constrained by our interaction with other humans, some of whom we aspire to mimic (if even to the tiniest degree, it probably remains true).

    Barring that aspect of influence from other humans, evolution is literally the result of reproduction–both genetic and behavioral.

    I posit originality to be an unnecessary aspiration.

    Maybe intellectual progress from birth to death would be a loftier measurement… but this post is both very old, and very whimsical. Probably not a good idea to dwell on its premise for very long. ;D

  23. Paul Milford says:

    if we all perceive any and every thought about the same object differently, let alone a whirlpool of constantly moving and changing ideas, then our individuality as human beings makes each thought (even of the exact same idea or object) an original thought in its own way.

  24. Mr. P says:

    You cannot step on the same piece of water twice, why does this not apply to our consciousness. To the bottom of the ocean, to the furthest reaches of space, we as humans have only just begun to think. We are galacticly just children.

  25. David says:

    “In scientific circles the concern is fairly minimal. There are enough “loose pieces” around that scientists will still be making great strides for decades.”

    This attitude is perennial. It arises for psychological reasons. At the end of the 19th century they thought they’d finished physics, and that there were only details left to fill in. It comes from not wanting to admit there are things we don’t know – major things. It’s easy to show that there are still major areas of physics incomplete or wrong. The great physicists admitted what we don’t know, you have to admit that first, before you even start. Science thrives when people do that. But the more small minded physicists spend their time feeling complacent about what we do know, and the idea that we don’t know stuff makes them feel insecure.

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