Murray Gell-Mann is an American physicist. A friend and colleague of Albert Einstein, he received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles.
He is now 86 and still going strong. He is obviously famous for his scientific studies and most importantly, he is basically known as the father of the “Quark”, which is the name he gave to a minute particle which is a fundamental building block of neutrons and protons, and which he found has very unusual properties.
He also loves delving in other subjects such as linguistics, archeology, and he even expands his views and opinions on the subject of creativity and innovation. During my seminars at the University I draw a great deal of inspiration from some of his very clever ideas. First and foremost, the fact that the Universe is one, and we are part of it. And as part of such a large event, we follow necessarily certain rules that are common to everything that exists within it.
Gell-Mann is not alone. It is not uncommon to hear physicists or mathematicians – even Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Sir Issac Newton before them, and even Aristotle way before all of us – refer to the beauty, simplicity or elegance of equations or theorems and how these characteristics tend to be a good omen that a correct formula is close by (Newton said, for example, that “Nature is pleased with simplicity” while Aristotle made a point in favor of simplicity by advocating as few as possible postulates).
Gell-Mann always tells the story about his 1957 theory on the weak force which he and his colleagues decided to publish. They did so even though it went against seven well know experiments which said something very different. According to him, they did it because they obviously thought they were correct, but the indication that this was so was just the fact that, to them, their answer was a simple one while the other, which was the accepted reasoning, was convoluted and ugly. In time it was shown that Gell-Mann and his friends were correct and all known experiments at the time were wrong.
I always tell my students that simplicity is at the core of all successful enterprises, while overly complex concepts tend to have a much lower success rate, and in the case of initial success, relatively low survival rate. By simplicity I also mean organic, natural, intuitive.
A common example for this, believe it or not, is Facebook.
The core architecture of Facebook is so simple that it almost shocks those who sit down to analyze it for the first time.
I don´t know if it is still going on, but a well-known fact happening at Facebook for a long time was that on the first day of work at the company, the VP of Product, Chris Cox, would give newcomers a remarkable introductory talk. In it he would focus, amongst other things, on explaining Facebook´s product architecture and how it relates to the mission of the company.
When we talk about a company´s architecture, we mean the building blocks of a company, its structure, and how these objects relate to each other and with each other.
Cox, moved by great minimalistic aptitude, describes it in the case of Facebook, as a directory of people, their friends, and their interests; plus a directory of businesses, from global brands all the way to small local businesses. Plus, on top of those directories, a thorough map which basically shows the relationships that exist between all those things. That´s it. No more or less. And that summarizes Facebook.
And it can´t be denied that it is a crystal clear formulation of the product, directly relevant to the mission the company has set, and above all, easily understood by anyone who sees it. It is “beautiful”, it is “elegant”, it is in line – within the corporate cosmos – with Albert Einstein’s famous remark about the fact that he had faith in that “the principle of the universe will be beautiful and simple.”
As far as company´s architectures go, it is beautifully simple, and it is organic to the extent that it is following our everyday interactions, which occur naturally in society, and in doing so it is also helping us to make them richer.
Now, to the big question. Is then the claim that beautiful and elegant answers, as proclaimed by scientists and partially concurred by many who deal in many diverse professions – including myself -, factual evidence or there may be more mundane explanations for this? Does apparent simplicity explain itself or does it hide something else within the underlying structure of reality? Or can it simply be explained by way of sociological, psychological or practical considerations?
Just from the above enumeration of possibilities one gets the distinct notion that things are not that “simple” in “simple answers”.
For a start, it is important to notice that the aesthetics of equations is quite deceiving. An answer may not be convoluted in terms of steps or length because many symbols, which make it look short and “elegant”, involve within their meaning, long and complex equations. What is hidden in all derivative operations is nothing less that long and complex definitions. Thus the “appearance” of simplicity may hide great deal of complexity, and it usually does.
But does this vitiate the argument that “simplicity and elegance” is a good sign in regards to proper and workable solutions?
While mathematicians compress very complex ideas in easily understood symbols, life itself does a bit of the same.
When I say someone is “good”, as opposed to someone who is “evil”, what am I really saying? The concept of “good” requires of a long, and usually difficult to agree, definition. Many philosophers and theologians have spent their lives looking for a formal demarcation without definite agreement. Yet it is one of the most used words, and therefore concepts, in any language.
What has happened is that common consensus has looked to “simplify” its meaning. It is probably an acceptable explanation that a good man
tends to be the sum of the specific interactions between the idea of a person who (generally speaking) does not act against his fellow men, with one who (mostly) acts in a responsible manner, and one who has a certain degree of solidarity, honesty, and social conscience. May also involve concepts such as being a respected and loving father, brother, son, husband, or friend. And so on.
The definition involves a series of terms which act in the same manner as arithmetical “derivatives”, and when put together, they come up with a symbolic word which makes a very intricate but widely acceptable concept into something “simple and elegant”.
The same can be said of anything. Our day to day life involves a constant oversimplification of complex concepts. The oversimplification factor can overlook many nuances but it also makes concepts easily understood and shared by all, and sharing is one of the key factors which make a society into a healthy and growing civilization.
So is simplicity merely the expression that intricate concepts acquire when consensus generates a commonly agreed, albeit limited, explanation? Everything seems to be pointing that way. A flower is a flower but depending on the level of complexity I wish to analyze it, it is a flower or it is something so complex that only a molecular physicist, biologist and botanist can muster.
If it is then a matter of socially acceptable definitions? Can then simplicity be merely described in sociological terms? Is it just a mirage in a wide desert of concepts as abundant as grains of sand? The answer may be resting somewhere in between.
In the same way that the concept of the Universe can be explained in fairly simple and elegant terms, it can also be described as the most complex conjunction of situations, equations, “random coincidences”, and an uncertain prequel and origin we have been able not to ever explain at this time.
Simple answers thus generally hide extremely complex definitions, equations or layered responses which no longer need to be probed as their terms are generally accepted, or because the general description is acceptable on its own terms even if one sees or intuits that a more complex situation lies beneath the surface.
“Simplicity and elegance” may be then a matter of communicating the commonly accepted “look and feel” of something in a terminology that is understood by most at a specific period of time.
As an artist I see this in my own work, and an example of this may be a good way of making graphic something that by now seems so philosophical.
The general perception of a painting may hide a complex underlying theme or pictorial development. Take for example Epistrophy, my painting from 2015.
On the surface it seems a conjunction of fairly geometrical forms in, mostly, 4 colors: blacks, ochres, blues and reds. Not that it can easily be understood, but the composition seems elegant and fairly simple. The shapes are fairly geometrical and providing an initial look of something urban, perhaps somewhat adjacent to a constructivism gone a little haywire.
After a longer period of study other things become obvious. There are also perspectives involved. In fact, there are more than 6 purposely conflicting perspectives, including 2 conflicting curvilinear perspectives implicated. The colors are also more than just 4. There are more than 45 colors involved plus their shades.
But even in each apparently “solid color”, which can seemingly be described as a red, or an ochre, or blue, there is an immense complexity of detail which gives to the eye the idea of one solid color. There is a minute, almost microscopic world of art, which lives beneath the apparent simplicity of one solid, elegant, simple description of color and which comes to life thanks to macro photography.
This is not a fluke. It is in fact by design. And this level of complexity and detail can be found, as I can demonstrate here below with some oher samples, in all of my paintings underneath the superficial explanation of its contents.
Thus, apparent simplicity hides a great deal of complexity that most, unless looking for it specifically, need not know. The simple answer exists and it is satisfying by itself. The complexity behind it also exists, and needs only to be known when the simple answer does not satisfy us.
So, having seen that simple and elegant may not be that simple or elegant beneath the surface, is the “simple and elegant answer” rule a good guide?
Even with all the questions still hanging around the subject, I would nevertheless venture to say “Yes”. It is a reasonable model to follow.
There are many reasons but I will just stick to these 4:
- In my experience, the answer which simplifies the steps which need to be taken as well as the reasoning behind it, has a tendency to be more widely understood and therefore, more likely to be put into action. And an answer which is widely applied is, by its own definition, probably a correct answer at the time.
- An explanation which simplifies a complex issue, and thus adds a certain elegance in a response, is very often the result of relating different occurrences to a single cause. Therefore eliminating unnecessary steps and making the response more widely applied as well.
- Concurrently, longwinded, complex (“ugly”), and hard to understand answers or solutions will be more difficult to apply or prove, and thus less likely to be widely adopted, no matter their level of correctness.
- This may be cheating, but many scientists and mathematicians have a rule of thumb. Known as Occam’s Razor (so named – or rather misnamed – for the English monk William of Ockham (or Occam), c.1285-c.1349 AD), this concept stands on the idea that if there are multiple plausible explanations for something, the simplest one will probably be the correct one. To avoid reductionism, one should add that this rule has a proviso that says “all things being equal”. In other words, it is mostly correct as long as you do not compare answers that put face to face bananas and apples.
So, is this becoming a dichotomist argument? Are we facing-off ugly vs elegant, or simple vs complex in an impossible battle? In reality, and as we have seen, what seems simple also hides intricacy. As a matter of fact, mothing in life is that easy, but almost everything should be approachable if explained in certain understandable terms. There is no battle here, but there is a probable winner nonetheless.
Whether in business, art, nature, mathematics or life itself, what we understand as answers that are, in relative terms, simple (ie: understandable, elegant, beautiful, non-repetitive, wider scoping, and so on) do run with an advantage over those seen as complex (difficult to fathom, convoluted, repetitive, ugly, non-organic, and so on).
“Simple” – elegant- answers hide within their nature the inherent complexity of life itself, but manage to show their results in a way that satisfy most. And as such, they tend to provide us with a healthy guide towards the right path. Furthermore, and coincidentally, being on the right path tends to also always be a beautiful experience.
©2015 by Ignacio Alperin Bruvera