Monday, February 21, 2011

Law 2: Beauty is Elegance

Making Monday

Occam's razor, or the Law of Parsimony, says that given two theories with equal explanatory power, we should generally prefer the one that is simpler.

When we talk about the history of cosmology, we usually get a short paragraph on the Ptolemaic (or geocentric) model of the solar system before moving triumphantly to the Copernican (or heliocentric) model. We happily accept the implication that understanding the Earth moves around the Sun shows we're much more sophisticated than our benighted ancestors. But what we miss in the gloss is that astronomers used the Ptolemaic system to prepare astrological charts for 1500 years. Put another way, a model that places our planet at the center and describes the apparent motions of celestial bodies around it isn't wrong. So why do we glibly say that the Copernican model is better? Because it's simpler. Occam's razor, Q.E.D.

Elegance, as a dimension of beauty, can be inelegantly defined as maximum effect for minimum effort. 

The lengths to which one must go
to pick up a weak radar signal
Here's a recent, technical example of elegance. Radio based systems, like WiFi, cannot transmit and receive at the same time because the signal produced by the transmitter is so much more powerful that the signal consumed by the receiver that the former washes out that latter. Interference patterns are one of the staple topics of high school physics (because you only need a tray of water and a simple wave generator for the experiments). Where a single wave generator produces ripples that pass through every point on the surface, a pair of generators produce what appears to be a stable pattern where the waves are twice as high in some places and the surface of the water is perfectly smooth in others. Researchers recently realized that if they used two transmitters instead of one, and positioned them correctly, they could use the interference pattern to produce a region around the receiver that's quiet (devoid of the transmitted signal) enough for the receiver to continue to pick up the weaker signal from a distant transmitter. In other words, by making a very simple change, radios can now both transmit and receive at the same time.

The idea of elegance is more complicated in writing because there was a time when, 'ornate,' lived in the same neighborhood. Then the cultural pendulum swung away and we came to celebrate inelegance as, 'gritty,' and more realistic. But the elegance we're examining here is a deeper matter of art and craft: everything from gritty realism to lofty ideal can be expressed elegantly.

Consider some of the synonyms: refinement, clarity, purity, ease, grace.

Elegant writing, as with all made things that are beautiful, is like the Zen garden where a bit of sand and stone become oceans of meaning.

Image: Bill Longshaw /