Examples of speed dating questions
Some emphasized the importance not of specific breakthroughs but of broad categories of achievement.
For instance, Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern, nominated in his top 10 “modularity.” By that he meant the refinements in industrial processes that allowed high-volume output of functionally identical parts.
(As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No.21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No.The panelists agreed easily on the top few names—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, in that order—but then began diverging in intriguing ways that reflected not simply their own values but also the varied avenues toward influence in our country. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier.We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow.30.) We also invited panelists to add explanations of their choices, and I followed up with several of them and with other experts in interviews.
One panelist ranked his choices not by importance but by date of invention, oldest (cement) to newest (GPS satellites).