Friday, 29 March 2013


There's no evidence Einstein actually said this, but it probably is a view he'd have some sympathy with.

I say this because he devoted much of his later life to the pursuit of a theory - the 'grand unified field theory' - which would make it possible to explain quantum physics simply. He did this without much success and in the face of steadily mounting evidence that his quest was misguided. There's a pretty good discussion of much of the later Einstein's disagreement with mainstream physics in Manjit Kumar's excellent Quantum, if you're interested in more detail.

Whether or not Einstein said it, or held the attitude, it seems to be a popular quote; the above image does the rounds on Facebook fairly regularly. The idea that things should be simple and easily understood certainly plays a major part in the oft-lamented and seemingly-growing distrust of science and scientists. When a scientist can only give a complicated truth that people can't understand, his audience come away unsatisfied, confused and sometimes even suspicious.

But the cruel truth is that the universe isn't simple. Actually, it's worse than that - it is simple, but simple doesn't mean what you think it means. Einstein's greatest contribution to science, the general theory of relativity, comes down to one simple equation, E=MC^2, and is actually beautifully, breathtakingly elegant when you grasp it (for a good introduction, I recommend 'Why Does E=MC^2?' by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw).

Even the standard model of quantum physics, which Einstein so hated, comes down to a couple of handfuls of particles and their interactions expressed in a few lines of maths. The trouble is, it takes a Wikipedia page like this to even begin to break it up into things that can be explained, and whole books to actually do any of that explaining.

In academic discourse, 'simple' doesn't mean 'easy to understand'. It means 'involving few entities and relationships' - this is why Occam's razor is such a powerful and important analytic tool. We prefer the theory that explains what we're studying in the fewest possible terms. The trouble with quantum physics is that when you try to explain the whole universe, you still need a fairly large number of terms (again, I stress: the fact that the standard model only uses seventeen particles is stunning in its elegance), and you still have to do immensely complicated things with those terms to explain everything.

I'm feeling particularly sore about this at the moment because I have to present at Liverpool University's 'Poster Day' in a couple of weeks. The essence of the day is that I make a big poster summarising my research in terms that someone with no specialist knowledge of my subject (philosophy) could understand, then pin it up in a lecture room and stand next to it for six hours trying not to feel too patronised by the experience.

Poster Day is a promotional event for the university; they actually say on the website for the event that "We aim to show off as much of our postgraduate research talent as we can". The event is open to anyone, and we're supposed to pitch our posters at a level such that anyone with an undergraduate degree should be able to understand them.

The problem is that frontier academic research these days, in every discipline, is incredibly specialised. To understand any particular project, you have to know about its context and have a solid grounding in the terminology of the subject area. As a guesstimate, the average poster at poster day is going to have around 1,500 words (mine clocks in at a whopping 1,700 - almost one-fortieth of the length of the current draft of my thesis) - about 5 minutes' reading time.

At a stretch, I might be able to explain what my project is about to a lecturer in philosophy in five minutes, provided they had a solid grounding in contemporary metaphysics. I could explain how I've framed the debate between physical realism, dualism and idealism; how I've shown that compatibilist theories of mind rely on revisionist definitions of the term 'mental'; how I've dispensed with the Bird-Dipert graph theoretic version of causal structuralism and used John Foster's argument from functional arrangements to illustrate the necessary dependence of the experiential world on the relationship between human minds and external reality.

If any of that meant anything to you, I'm guessing it's because you've studied philosophy at some point ('idealism', by the way, doesn't mean political idealism, which is really just optimism; it means this). The actual new work that I've done - the definition of the mental, my argument against Bird and Dipert, and my treatment of Foster - is all stuff that will be meaningless to you unless you have that background to draw on.

Any time I spend trying to explain the context to you, of course, is time I can't spend actually talking about my work. Given that I've got five minutes to communicate to you (apparently you're attending Poster Day now? Do say hi ;D), there's not enough time to do both. So I have a choice; either I can explain to you the context of my work, or I can explain what my work is (to be completely frank, what I can actually choose between is giving a brief introduction to the context or to my work).

I'm supposed to present my work to you in a form you can understand, but in the time and space available,  that simply (hah) can't be done.

I'm not just griping, by the way. The point of the example is this: when you simplify something, you lose detail, and detail is not always something you can afford to lose. With academic research, the first cost of simplification tends to be the most valuable bit - the bit that's actually new.

If you demand that people simplify their work to the point that you can understand it without specialist expertise, you will miss out on everything that is valuable about that work (this goes just as much for writing fiction, by the way - simplify any story enough and it comes down to one of a handful of archetypes, but that doesn't mean the story itself is just an archetype and therefore valueless).

Don't demand people come down to your level. Lift yourself up to theirs - the view is always interesting.

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