Simplifying Simplifying

Every time physicists discover something new about the universe, they realize that the world is more complex than they previously thought. Ancient Greeks learned that the physical world can be broken down to tiny particles, and they named the particles “atoms.” They used their word for “indivisible” because they thought, surely, this is as complex as it gets.

Later, the first physicists who worked with the electron had no inkling of quantum mechanics. Now we talk about the types of quarks, and the next time we learn more, would you bet along with me that it won’t get any simpler?

It’s as if our understanding of the world is in constant movement toward the increasingly complex. And most people’s default mindset seems to have adjusted to this well.

When we work on many types of problems, we tend to favor additive solutions rather than starting with the simplification step. We fit an extra wheel to carts, use more description to explain things, or add another layer to a cake—to make it “better.” Sometimes we do these things because the additive solution appears easier, and often because we didn’t even think to consider the alternative.

Simplifying takes effort. Consider the quote, widely attributed to Mark Twain: “I apologize for such a long letter—didn’t have time to write a short one.”