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MARGINALIA

Why Buy That Theory?

Roald Hoffmann

Simplicity

A simple equation describing a physical phenomenon (better still, many), the molecule shaped like a Platonic solid with regular geometry, the simple mechanism (A?B, in one step)—these have tremendous aesthetic appeal, a direct beeline into our soul. They are beautifully simple, and simply beautiful. Theories of this type are awesome in the original sense of the world—who would deny this of the theory of evolution, the Dirac equation or general relativity?

A little caution might be suggested from pondering the fact that political ads patently cater to our psychobiological predilection for simplicity. Is the world simple? Or do we just want it to be such? In the dreams of some, the beauty and simplicity of equations becomes a criterion for their truth. Simple theories seem to validate that idol of science, Ockham's razor. In preaching the poetic conciseness and generality of orbital explanations, I have succumbed to this, too.

A corrective to the infatuation of scientists with simplicity might come from asking them to think of what they consider beautiful in art, be it music or the visual arts. Is it Bach's Goldberg Variations or a dance tune where the theme plays ten times identically in succession? Is any animal ever painted to show its bilateral symmetry?

Still, there's no getting away from it; a theory that is simple yet explains a lot is usually accepted in a flash.




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