Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Albert Einstein

davinciSimplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

― Leonardo da Vinci
For many reasons simplicity is valued greatly, some good, some not so much. Given the above stated endorsement of simplicity by two of the greatest minds in human history, more consideration of this principle is warranted. It is worth thinking about when simplicity should be sought over the creeping tendency towards complexity. Often the simple explanation for complex phenomena is the stroke of genius because it contains the kernel of utility. We typically see simplicity that is good as elegance and grace where a cacophony of complexity might otherwise reign.

Simplicity is a great virtue but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.

― Edsger W. Dijkstra

By the same token simplicity can also be bad. Simplicity can be terrible when it coincides with a lack of consideration of a complex situation. Without the stroke of genius, the simplicity can simply be a lazy approach where an easy solution is taken that misses the essence of a problem. In this sense the word simple is woefully inadequate to capture the aspects of quality necessary for a discerning eye. For this reason when genius isn’t present, complexity often rules, it at least shows consideration of the details even if it is lost in them

occams-razorThe heuristic of Occam’s razor comes in as a principle to clarify things. At its simplest it specifies a tendency for choosing between explanations based on their relative simplicity; if they are otherwise equal, the simplest explanation is preferred. One might be properly tempted to apply the same principle, but replace “simple” by “elegant,” “beautiful” or “graceful”. This gets to the core of the manner in which science takes on the mantle of an art; beauty, elegance and grace have a roll to play in shaping opinions.

 Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.

― Pete Seeger

SphericalCow2One could easily take the view that this is a bad thing, but the concepts of artistic opinion are useful. These concepts capture the deep essence of the subconscious. The subconscious is integrating many factors that hidden from the superficial thinking usually operating in people. We know beauty and elegance when we see it, and we naturally gravitate toward it. Unfortunately these also include bias and preconceptions that would tend to hold progress back. Given this possibility the whole artistic approach to science needs to be taken in a mindful fashion fully acknowledging the tendency to give into traditional bias and counter-balancing this trend with careful consideration of alternatives. This is where Occam’s razor and attractiveness of simplicity can play a deeply powerful roll in progress.

Nature has a great simplicity and therefore a great beauty

― Richard P. Feynman

Despite our desire to ascribe truth and logic to science, it remains a fundamentally human endeavor, and as such prone to humanity’s frailties. There is nothing wrong with stepping forward fully aware of this; there is something wrong with not acknowledging the roll of opinion and art in what science accomplishes.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.

― Henry David Thoreau