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Posts Tagged ‘simplicity’

Recently I was fortunate to hear Professor Leon Lederman, Physics Nobel Prize Laureate 1988, speak and to continue with him the conversation regarding understanding science. He is not only brilliant but also very funny. His main message was that nature is likely very simple once we finally understand it. He also emphasized the need to be able to explain science to a large audience in order to engage others.

His opinion completely resonated with my own central belief that a few fundamental principles could explain – and rule – nature in her many representations. Maybe this is because I started my own scientific education journey with Physics then went on into biology and medicine, or maybe it is why I pursued my education in that order (mentioned in an earlier post on our educational journey). In fact, Professor Lederman is on a crusade to re-haul high-school science education. He believes the sequence in which this is currently taught in the USA is wrong and that students should be first introduced to Physics, then go on to study Chemistry, and finally Biology (the exact sequence I pursued myself!) He argues that we should be building up the knowledge of our world from understanding the few elemental particles to studying the list of chemical elements, and then go on to studying the much more complex collection of biological systems. As a simple yet brilliant demonstration that something simple could the basis of something much more profound, Professor Lederman offered the following thought: “consider for instance a simple problem such as: Johnny drives at 60 mph from point A to point B which is 360 miles away. How long will it take him to get there? When solving this problem, you are basically… predicting the future!” (If only Wall Street would be better at that…)


Agh, I finally felt understood! To me, physics is all about fundamentally simple building blocks, about learning a few fundamental principles (like E=mc2) and using them to deduct anything else needed and build up from there. As I might have mentioned somewhere else, the perceived simplicity and lack of expectations to memorize things were the very reasons due to which I had decided to begin my scientific training to become a biomedical researcher with Physics. Later, during my years among biologists and physicians (yes, I did not mean physicists), in the process of analyzing puzzles presented by biological systems I often raised eyebrows when expressing my fundamental belief: “It just cannot be so complicated. If it were… we would be broken most of the time. It must be simple, we just don’t get it!” If starting with this premise, one makes a conscientious effort to ask the “simplest” fundamental question that might explain the observation (allowing the quickest way to confirm of infirm the hypothesis) and then design the simplest experiment to test it.

And, I think Physics is all about unifying theories and the “big picture!” On the other hand, biology’s building blocks are already rather complicated and display great apparent variability, and it only gets harder from there! Biology delves into the details and variability of things, while physics constantly seeks the unifying themes. A quick analogy of the difference between physics and biology can be gleaned from the quintessential tools used by these two scientific disciplines: telescopes and microscopes. The first can help one see galaxies millions of times bigger than us and the world we came to know, all captured in one little circle, and they all look basically very similar, some sort of “speckle”… The other type of tool, reveals the extraordinary intricacy and variability of worlds millions of times smaller than us and the microscope calls for … two (!) oculars to do it.

The same quest for simplicity should guide our efforts to solve any outstanding problems: great solutions, as well as great innovations, are really simple. These rely on ideas that are easy to understand, therefore easy to design and build, test, implement, and easy to “sell!” If you still have doubts about this, think of the proverbial “30 seconds elevator speech” or consider the continuously rising popularity of Tweeter (if can you say it in 140 characters, we’ll read it and might be persuaed to became your followers!). One should be able to explain the most brilliant ideas in a few simple sentences. This is the surest way to win support, whether it is in terms of human following, gaining resources, or the funding needed to develop it. When the benefits of the innovation are obvious, the product literally sells itself.

While travelling I was pondering the concept of the beauty of simple innovations, so I was more tuned into observing them around me. I don’t know about you, but I used to cringe every time I got into the shower of a hotel room knowing that in spite of my best efforts the curtain will be sticking to my wet body. I knew they did not change the shower curtain too frequently, and I dreaded the almost certain occurrence. However, lately, this daily stress has completely disappeared. Thank you, inventor of the… curved shower curtain rod, whoever you are, you deserve all the royalties for this simple innovation that finally allows me to start my days completely refreshed.

Simple is beautiful!

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