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ComplexityFromSimplicity

Some systems are hard to understand because they have complicated rules. Chess pieces move in diverse ways, and there are exceptions and addenda that extend those patterns (castling, and en passant capturing, for instance). Some wargames and rôle-playing systems have multivolume rulebooks that exceed the length of novels. And think of the tax code, or antitrust law, or other parts of the legal apparatus that fill many library shelves.

More aesthetic systems, in contrast, are built from simple rules but with components that interact in delicate feedback loops. The game of go is a stellar example. So is mathematics, where basic ideas of number and form lead quickly into infinite depths of conjecture, proof, and refutation. The physical universe itself seems to be governed, at its most fundamental level, by subtle yet straightforward laws.

The story of science --- of progress in our understanding of nature --- is one of moving from complex rules to simple ones. Epicycles, wheels revolving within wheels, aren't needed to explain the orbits of the planets; inverse-square gravity does the trick quite nicely, thank you. The colors that things give off when they burn, which is to say the spectral lines emitted by excited atoms, come out of a few quantum-mechanical equations. (Relativistic laws extend these solutions to even greater precision.) All the rich natural phenomena that we see in the world, all the wonders of life, all the joys and sorrows we experience, arise from the interplay of utterly simple rules. There's no need for ugly ad hoc regulations, riddled with exceptions and special cases. Real magic creates complexity from simplicity --- much from little.

Thursday, August 05, 1999 at 21:48:44 (EDT) = Datetag19990805

TopicScience - TopicPhilosophy - TopicRecreation


(correlates: DepartmentOfRed, LearningInconsistency, MandatoryInversion, ...)