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Rock doc: Keeping it simple

By July 29, 2010

Democrat columnist

At every level, we humans have a natural drive to understand the world around us. We try to understand people and the economy (with little success), and we try to understand the natural world around us (with more and more success over time).

ItÕs easy to be puzzled about why we humans are so successful in understanding the physical world. At the level of recognizing a tiger and knowing to run away from one, itÕs no surprise why weÕre good at understanding Mother Nature. Evolution would weed out those who have trouble grasping the predator-prey relationship. But, at the same time, thereÕs no clear evolutionary reason we can see that people who are good with very abstract reasoning (like Einstein and other physicists) would spring up and do so very well at their labors.

To put it another way, why can we calculate the mass of an electron or do a thousand and one other tasks that are routine in research science and engineering?

Even if basic problem-solving is a hallmark of modern Homo sapiens, we are remarkably good at it at a level thatÕs astounding Ñ yet we donÕt know why we are suited to abstractions.

And the conundrum gets deeper, the more we think about it.

The methods of science are a hodgepodge we inherited from the intellectual past of Greece, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

HereÕs one example. EinsteinÕs most famous equation is so simple it can be printed on a T-shirt. (ThatÕs my idea of good science Ñ T-shirt printing!) Indeed, everything studied in freshman college physics Ñ all the powerful equations that matter Ñ can be printed on the back and front of a T-shirt.

We scientists are taught that simple is good, that a simple explanation of what looks complex is worth our serious consideration. To put it another way, if we have two competing hypotheses for something weÕve studied, and one is more simple than another, we are (all things being equal) supposed to prefer the simpler one. This is called Òthe principle of parsimonyÓ or the Òprinciple of simplicity.Ó As students like to say, Òkeep it simple, stupid.Ó But itÕs also called by the rather difficult name of ÒOckhamÕs razor,Ó and therein hangs a tale.

Keeping explanations simple sounds like common sense. And, I suppose, it is. But the rule is actually one we inherited from medieval times. A great intellectual of that era, a guy named William of Ockham (we can just call him Will) was in quite an argument with his colleagues about several things. The great discussions of that day were all about God, so the great disagreements were, too. Our friend Will argued that theologians should prefer the most simple ideas or explanations they had about theology because simplicity has a note of elegance and power to it Ñ just like God. (Will got that notion mostly from the Greek tradition, I think.)

In the Renaissance, when people started to more seriously study what they assumed was GodÕs creation in the natural world around us, it made sense to import WillÕs principle straight into early science. Hence the name Ñ OckhamÕs razor, which gives credit to him for the idea of cutting through complexity to the elegant and powerful simplicity likely to explain the very most.

But whatÕs interesting is that modern science Ñ which no longer expects to see GodÕs handiwork in creation Ñ still uses WillÕs idea to good effect. And, of course, itÕs doubly interesting that other parts of our creative lives, like good literature, poetry, and portions of our spirituality also seem driven by the quest for the profound and sublime that often comes with simplicity.

ItÕs just not clear why WillÕs ÒrazorÓ is still so useful in science and elsewhere, nor why our minds can deal with the abstractions of science so successfully to start with. Maybe itÕs all chance, a byproduct of our problem-solving skills developed many millennia ago to make better and better stone tools in the most efficient way possible.

But itÕs all surely good fortune. For science, engineering, medical advances and the rest depend on our intellectual heritage going back to the ancient world as much as on our current creativity.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

E. Kirsten Peters

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