Invention and Discovery Are Twins

The word "invention" comes from the Latin inventio. It means both invention and discovery. The ancients believed the two are inseparable. Nothing gets created wholly anew; it was an ancient Greek who wrote, “There is nothing new under the Sun.” Invention meant discovering the available means to solve a problem or do something new.

Engineers understand this concept implicitly. The team that invented the iPhone did not invent the digital music player, or GPS, or email, or the Internet browser or radio communication. They discovered a new purpose for each, and married them into an intuitive machine for Apple’s smartphone. Of course, a great deal of technical wizardry was required to make all these existing inventions play nice together; but the result was a pure act of inventio: invention and discovery in one creative act.

You could say that inventio is the perfect description of NASA as well. It invents in order to discover; and the inventions themselves are an act of discovery. While most NASA engineers wince when you call them “rocket scientists,” in a way the label is appropriate. The agency comprises deeply practical people with a passion for discovery. They invent by discovering, and discover through invention.