Simplicity vs. Familiarity
In the last post, featuring MinutePhysics and Veritasium’s awesome collaboration to explain the physics of magnetism, I noted that even Richard Feynman (as seen here in a 1983 interview with the BBC) had trouble simplifying the physics of magnetism.
Or did he?
I stumbled upon an outtake from Feynman’s BBC interview (above), and although only the audio survives, it explores a very interesting question related to the art of explaining, via the Great Explainer himself. What is the difference between simplicity and familiarity?
Feynman says that he was unable to give a satisfying answer to the question of why two magnets repel each other when they are placed in a certain orientation, the old “like repels like” thing, because he is unable to relate it to something the interviewer would be familiar with. Not rubber bands, not springs. Those just won’t do. Because while both of those things are familiar analogies, the science of their action and contraction, and thereby their explanation, is not simple.
It makes me wonder: What do we really mean when we say we want to simplify something? That answer depends on the question we ask. And if that question is continually “WHY?!”, then we will only discover a fractal Matryoshka doll of inquisitveness, where each explanation is a new question. Suddenly you’re four years old again, and it’s turtles screaming “WHY?!" all the way down.
Feynman says that if we ask and ask and ask in that way, if we become blind bloodhounds on the trail of “WHY?!" then we will eventually look around and find ourselves at a point where what we currently understand is painfully insufficient.
What do we do at this knotted crossroads? We must either accept that the answer lies beyond our circle of understanding and retrace our steps back to the familiar place from whence we came, or we must push forward into this foreign land, drawing new maps as we go.
And isn’t that what science is all about? We journey through the familiar until we find ourselves at the edge of understanding, toes over the edge, the great unknown below us, pulling us in like gravity.
What now? We take shovelfuls of Earth from the Familar Known behind us, and we pile them ahead, building from our past a path into the Great Unknown, one step at a time. This is what Stuart Firestein describes as “searching for black cats in dark rooms”. That is what drives science. It is the anti-onion, forever uncovering outer layers. As Firestein says:
“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger…and it is more interesting.”
The world is made out of simple stuff. The relationships between the basic elements of matter that determine a vast majority of the “stuffness of stuff” are often not that complicated. They are just unfamiliar. Depending on who you are, “unfamiliar” may mean arithmetic made of Greek letters or it may mean fuzzy quantum dynamics. And that which is familiar, the rubber bands and springs that we stretch for when seeking an analogy, they are often not simple at all.
Even the Great Explainer understood that sometimes, to do the question justice, he may not be able to put the simple in familiar terms. He never throws his hands up and says: “It is just so.” Instead he says “It is just something else.”
So maybe that’s what we’re doing when we teach, familiarizing where we can, but ultimately trying to uncover all of that simplicity, even that which we can’t explain. So that when the student gets to the edge of the knowniverse, we can invite them to go further instead of turning back. Of course, this is their world, and they have to take the first step.
I can’t recommend Stuart Firestein’s book Ignorance enough. It will change the way you look at why and how we do science.