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Was Einstein Wrong About Complexity?

September 17, 2014 by Saswato Das

In the last two decades of his life, Albert Einstein struggled to come up with a unified theory that would describe both gravity and electromagnetism. He felt the existing theories of the day lacked a simpler, more holistic framework. Einstein was also careful to distinguish simplicity from simplemindedness.

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler,” he said.

Unfortunately, the rise of complexity can seem inevitable when it comes to science and technology. As my colleague Paul Taylor has pointed out in his excellent essay, the information technology landscape today is unbelievably cluttered and complex, thanks to an exponential growth of connected devices that have to live with legacy systems and countless editions of software.

The modern IT landscape reminds me of a large metropolis like Lagos or Delhi or Cairo or Sao Paolo – chaotic and complex, where years of unplanned growth have created megacities difficult to navigate. Urban authorities often create arterial roads or demarcate one-way streets in an effort to combat traffic jams in these megapolises; similarly, there is a movement by businesses to manage IT complexity.

SAP CEO Bill McDermott, for example, is emphatic that “running simple” is more than a slogan or a business objective.

“This is an organizing principle that must galvanize CEOs and their teams as they eliminate unnecessary complexity and restore growth as the unifying priority,” he says.

Order Out Of Chaos

In science, things often grow seemingly complex before they are unified under a simple principle. In fact, it is the increasing complexity that often leads to a paradigm shift. A hundred years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus had started his catalogue of taxonomy. Linnaeus listed some 10,000 species of plants and animals, and favored a static description, which he ascribed to divine will. By Darwin’s time, the number of known species had grown to more than 100,000; it was in searching for a way to explain this diversity of life forms that Darwin came up with the theory of evolution – a paradigm shift, if there was one.

Getting Medieval With Complexity

Medieval astronomers still used the tables of Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer who lived in the 1st century A.D. Ptolemy believed the Earth was the center of the universe and had come up with a complicated model that involved nested circles (called epicycles) to predict the orbits of the planets. By the 15th century AD, Ptolemy’s model still worked, but only after careful tweaking to fit astronomical observations.

The resulting mathematics was very complicated. It was the desire to come up with a simpler framework that led Nicolaus Copernicus to the heliocentric model of the Solar System. Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler improved Copernicus’ framework and, finally, Isaac Newton gave Renaissance astronomy the necessary theoretical underpinning with his theory of gravitation. When the planet Neptune was discovered through a telescope based on Newtonian mechanics, it was a true triumph of science.

Change in Technology

Increasing complexity leads to change in technology as well. After the steam locomotive was invented in the 19th century, there was a remarkable proliferation of railway lines around the world. Initially, tracks of varying widths were built. Soon, however, the desire to build long distance rail networks (particularly, in the American West) led to adoption of the so-called broad gauge as the standard. Similarly, the development of railroads led to the need for better time-keeping in the U.S. and led to standardization of times.

Standardization is often the first tool deployed on the way to simplification, and usually leads to growth. The invention of the shipping container standardized and revolutionized global trade. (Instead of spending more time docked at ports for loading and unloading, ships were freed up to transport goods; containers that were sealed at factories also reduced pilferage at the docks, the cost of which was usually passed on to consumers.)

In recent years, the popularity of the Android platform and the GSM technology standard has simplified the mobile smartphone landscape, benefiting users around the world. The information technology landscape has benefitted from some standardization as well, but an overwhelming amount of complexity remains.

While Einstein’s grand unified theory is yet to be found, many scientists today uphold Einstein’s belief that laws in science tend to be simple and elegant. As no less a scientist than Sir Isaac Newton put it: “Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.”

This story previously appeared on SAPVoice on Forbes.

Photo: Shutterstock

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