“Possibilities” has been a constant theme in our previous lecture series as many guests categorized it as a source of the origins of their research objects. This week, Professor Vittorio Loreto from Sapienza University of Rome came to Colby to give a talk on the origins of innovation and novelties, in which he provided new insights on the meaning of possibilities through his study on the “adjacent possible.”

Prof. Loreto began his lecture with a simple question: how complex can a language be? By playing Shannon’s spelling game, Prof. Loreto provided the first letter in a sentence and asked us to guess the next one and so on. He then shifted gears to guessing each word in a sentence instead of single letters. While this change seems to make the game easier by providing the context in a sentence, it actually makes the possibilities N times larger. Finally, the game changed again to guessing the words given the first letters. Prof. Loreto stated that these three small games offered a measurement of surprise and a new way to look at languages. Instead of analyzing a line or a paragraph by the words and its meaning, we now interpret it on the letter basis. This interpretation draws the inner connection among letters, words, and sentences. We can then clearly see how one element will inspire the next and become the source of innovation, especially for writers.

This is exactly what Prof. Loreto meant by “adjacent possible.”

Adjacent possible was a completely stranger terminology for me before this lecture. According to Prof. Loreto, it refers to things that are one step away from what actually exists and hence can arise from incremental modifications and recombination of existing material. To make it more simply, it means any first thing you think of based on a pre-existing object. Two years ago in my Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society class, we discussed the comparison between innovation and invention and found their fundamental differences to be the creation vs. improvement. Prof. Loreto, therefore, argued that the adjacent possible is the actual origins of innovation. But I found this origin multi-dimensional as well. The example Prof. Loreto gave was while everyone has many friends, the adjacent possible one changes depending on the needs. Similarly, there are many different methods in mathematics, but the most useful and appropriate one varies according to the actual problem. While the adjacent possible prolong the ending of a current object, I consider this interdisciplinarity as the key to open up possibilities and derive various innovations instead of following one single path. Noted that several different guests have all emphasized that history never follows one single track. I believe it was also the existence of such diversity that built up the complex network of history and led to the framework we use now to study the origins of everything.