Herbert Simon writes on page 1 of his book The Sciences of the Artificial that "the central task of a natural science is to make the wonderful commonplace: to show that complexity, correctly viewed, is only a mask for simplicity; to find pattern hidden in apparent chaos."

Is the world really simple and what is the process by which
science finds simple patterns in the apparent chaos?
Let us take one paradigmatic example and analyze it in detail.
The second law of Newtonian dynamics is justly celebrated for
its elegance, simplicity, and coverage. The simple equation
** F = m.a**, together with a very small number of
other simple and elegant equations, accounts for a huge range
of phenomena.

But is the law ** F = m.a** really simple, after all?
Consider the acceleration term

Even though we know roughly what "speed" means, there are still
some rather deep subtleties; consider that the learned Greeks were
never able to adequately describe problems involving velocity.
The subtlety comes when we try to comprehend exactly what is meant
by "speed". The Greeks got very confused about this, and a
new branch of mathematics had to be discovered beyond the
geometry and algebra of the Greeks, Arabs, and Babylonians.
As an illustration of the difficulty, try to solve this problem
by sheer algebra: A balloon is being inflated so that the volume
of the balloon is increasing at the rate of 100 cubic centimeters
per second; at what speed is the radius increasing when the
volume is 1000 cm^{3} ?
The Greeks were somewhat confused by such problems, being helped,
of course, by some very confusing Greeks.
To show that there were difficulties in reasoning about speed,
Zeno produced a large number of paradoxes, of which we shall
mention one to illustrate his point that there are obvious
difficulties in thinking about motion.
"Listen," he says, "to the following argument: Achilles runs
10 times as fast as a tortoise, nevertheless he can never catch
the tortoise. For, suppose that they start in a race where the
tortoise is 100 meters ahead of Achilles; then when Achilles
has run the 100 meters to the place where the tortoise was, the
tortoise has proceeded 10 meters, having run one-tenth as fast.
Now, Achilles has to run another 10 meters to catch up with the
tortoise, but on arriving at the end of that run, he finds that
the tortoise is still 1 meter ahead of him; running another meter,
he finds the tortoise 10 centimeters ahead, and so on,
*ad infinitum*. Therefore, at any moment the tortoise is
always ahead of Achilles and Achilles can never catch up with
the tortoise."
What is wrong with that? It is that a finite amount of time can
be divided into an infinite number of pieces, just as a length
of line can be divided into an infinite number of pieces by
dividing repeatedly by two. And so, although there are an
infinite number of steps (in the argument) to the point at which
Achilles reaches the tortoise, it doesn't mean that there is
an infinite amount of *time*.
We can see from this example that there are indeed some subtleties
in reasoning about speed.

In order to get to the subtleties in a clearer fashion, we remind
you of a joke which you surely must have heard.
At the point where the lady in the car is caught by a cop, the
cop comes to her and says, "Lady, you were going 60 miles an
hour!" She says, "That's impossible, sir, I was travelling for
only seven minutes. It is ridiculous -- how can I go 60 miles
an hour when I wasn't going an hour?"
How would you answer her if you were the cop?
Of course, if you were really the cop, then no subtleties are
involved; it is very simple: you say, "Tell that to the judge!"
But let us suppose that we do not have that escape and we make
a more honest, intellectual attack on the problem, and try to
explain to this lady what we mean by the idea that she was going
60 miles an hour. Just what *do* we mean?
We say, "What we mean, lady, is this: if you kept on going the
same way as you are going now, in the next hour you would go
60 miles." She could say, "Well, my foot was off the accelerator
and the car was slowing down, so if I kept on going that way
it would not go 60 miles."
Or consider a falling ball and suppose we want to know its
speed at the time three seconds if the ball kept on going the
way it is going. What does that mean -- kept on
*accelerating*, going faster? No -- kept on going with
the same *velocity*. But that is what we are trying to
define! For if the ball keeps on going the way it is going,
it will just keep on going the way it is going. Thus we need
to define the velocity better. What has to be kept the same?
The lady can also argue this way: "If I kept going the way I'm
going for one more hour, I would run into that wall at the end
of the street!"
It is not so easy to say what we mean.

Many physicists think that measurement is the only definition
of anything. Obviously, then, we should use the instrument
that measures the speed -- the speedometer -- and say,
"Look, lady, your speedometer reads 60." So she says, "My
speedometer is broken and didn't read at all." Does this mean
that the car is standing still? We believe that there is
something to measure before we build the speedometer. Only then
can we say, for example, "The speedometer isn't working right,"
or "the speedometer is broken." That would be a meaningless
sentence if the velocity had no meaning independent of the
speedometer. So we have in our minds, obviously, an idea that
is independent of the speedometer, and speedometer is meant
only to measure this idea. So let us see if we can get a better
definition of the idea.
We say, "Yes, of course, before you went an hour, you would
hit that wall, but if you went one second, you would go 88 feet;
lady, you were going 88 feet per second, and if you kept on
going, the next second it would be 88 feet per second, and if
you kept on going, the next second it would be 88 feet, and the
wall down there is farther away than that."
She says, "Yes, but there is no law against going 88 feet per
second! There is only a law against going 60 miles an hour."
"But," we reply, "it's the same thing."
If it *is* the same thing, it should not be necessary
to go into this circumlocution about 88 feet per second.
In fact, the falling ball could not keep going the same way
even one second because it would be changing speed, and we
shall have to define speed somehow.

Now we seem to be getting on the right track; it goes something
like this: If the lady kept on going for another 1/1000 of an
hour, she would go 1/1000 of 60 miles. In other words, she does
not have to keep on going for the whole hour; the point is that
*for a moment* she is going at that speed.
Now what that means is that if she went just a little bit more
in time, the extra distance she goes would be the same as that
of a car that goes at a *steady* speed of 60 miles an
hour. Perhaps the idea of the 88 feet per second is right;
we see how far she went in the last second, divide by 88 feet,
and if it comes out 1 the speed was 60 miles an hour.
In other words, we can define the speed in this way: We ask,
how far do we go in a very short time? We divide the distance
by the time, and that gives the speed. But the time should be
made as short as possible, the shorter the better, because some
change could take place during that time. If we take the time
of a falling body as an hour, the idea is ridiculous. If we take
it as a second, the result is pretty good for a car, because
there is not much change in speed, but not for a falling body;
so in order to get the speed more and more accurately, we
should take a smaller and smaller time interval. What we should
do is take a millionth of a second, and divide that distance
by a millionth of a second. The result gives the distance per
second, which is what we mean by velocity, so we can define
it that way.
That is a successful answer for the lady, or rather, that is
the definition that we are going to use.

The foregoing definition involves a new idea, an idea that was
not available to the Greeks in general form. That idea is to
take an *infinitesimal distance* and the corresponding
*infinitesimal time*, form the ratio, and watch what
happens to that ratio as the time we use gets smaller and
smaller. In other words, take a limit of the distance travelled
divided by the time required, as the time taken gets smaller
and smaller, *ad infinitum*.
This idea was invented by Newton and Leibnitz, independently,
and is the beginning of a new branch of mathematics, called
the *differential calculus*. Calculus was invented in
order to describe motion, and its first application was to the
problem of defining what is meant by going "60 miles an hour."

Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol.I (1963/1989; p.8-2)

OK, let's now return to Newton's ** F = m.a** and
reassess its simplicity. We have the following facts:

- This law took thousands of years to formulate.
- A whole new branch of mathematics had to be invented to accurately state this law.
- This branch of mathematics involves limits and infinitesimally small quantities --that is, two different kinds of infinity lurk behind the scenes, counterbalancing each other.
- The "learned Greeks", despite their stunning achievements in geometry and other fields, were never able to adequately handle the concepts involved.
- Many, perhaps most, high-school and even university
students today have a hard time understanding the meaning
of
and mastering the mathematical machinery needed for its application.*F = m.a*

In light of this evidence, is Newton's second law simple or
isn't it? Well, yes and no. On one hand, there is tremendous
intellectual investment hidden behind the notation. On the
other hand, *for a person who has mastered the prerequisite
concepts*, the equation does seem simple and elegant.
And it is a wonderful empirical fact that apples, heavenly
bodies, and all sorts of other objects obey this law.

So, is this genuine simplicity of nature or mere notational shorthand? Consider a different example. Nobody has managed to invent a notation in which turbulence looks simple. Many smart people have tried and failed. Because of the great practical importance of this topic there is abundant funding and whole research institutes are working day and night. Relatively little progress has been made so far. There is even a growing sense that the task is impossible in principle. There are too many elements that interact in nonlinear ways, which gives rise to sensitive dependence on the initial conditions, and so forth.

A similar story can be told replacing the word "turbulence" with "the human brain". Can we ever formulate a simple description of the human brain? Who knows? How can one know? Is this a meaningful question? In particular, what is the meaning of the word "simple"?

Richard Feynman discusses the issue of notational tricks vs.
genuine simplicity of nature at several places in his
Lectures on Physics. Here is one more excerpt,
this time from the volume on electromagnetism. The example
involves concepts that I [Alex Petrov] have *not*
fully mastered yet and therefore the "beautiful and simple"
Equation (25.22) below does not seem so simple to me (but
perhaps seems even more beautiful because of that ;-).

We have found that the potentials ** phi** and

(25.19) | |

(25.22) |

There, in one tiny space on the page, are all of the Maxwell
equations -- beautiful and simple. Did we learn anything
from writing the equations in this way, besides that they are
beautiful and simple? In the first place, is it anything
different from what we had before when we wrote everything
out in all the various components? Can we from this
equation deduce something that could not be deduced from
the wave equations for the potentials in terms of the charges
and currents? The answer is definitely no.
The only thing we have been doing is changing the names
of things -- using a new notation. We have written a square
symbol to represent the derivatives, but it still means
nothing more nor less than the second derivative with respect
to *t*, minus the second derivative with respect to *x*,
minus the second derivative with respect to *y*, minus
the second derivative with respect to *y*.
And the *mu* means that we have four equations, one
each for *mu = t*, *x*, *y*, or *z*.
What then is the significance of the fact that the equations
can be written in this simple form?
From the point of view of deducing anything directly, it
doesn't mean anything. Perhaps, though, the simplicity of the
equation means that nature also has a certain simplicity.

Let us show you something interesting that we have recently
discovered:
*All of the laws of physics can be contained in one equation.*
That equation is

(25.30) |

What a simple equation! Of course, it is necessary to know what
the symbol means. **U** is a physical quantity which we
will call "unworldliness" of the situation. And we have a
formula for it. Here is how you calculate the unworldliness.
You take all of the known physical laws and write them in a
special form. For example, suppose you take the law of
mechanics,
** F = m.a**
, and rewrite it as

(25.31) |

Now you write another physical law, say, and define

which you might call "the gaussian unworldliness of electricity."
You continue to write **U _{3}**,

Finally, you call the *total* unworldliness **U** of the
world the sum of the various unworldlinesses **U _{i}**,
from all the subphenomena that are involved.
Then the great "law of nature" is

(25.32) |

This "law" means, of course, that the sum of the squares of all the individual mismatches is zero, and the only way the sum of a lot of squares can be zero is for each one of terms to be zero.

So the "beautifully simple" law in Eq. (25.32) is equivalent to
the whole series of equations that you originally wrote down.
It is therefore absolutely obvious that a simple notation
that just hides the complexity in the definitions of symbols
is not real simplicity. *It is just a trick.*
The beauty that appears in Eq. (25.32) -- just from the fact
that several equations are hidden within it -- is no more
than a trick. When you unwrap the whole thing, you get back
where you were before.

However, there *is* more to the simplicity of the
laws of electromagnetism written in the form of Eq. (25.19).
It means more, just as a theory of vector analysis means
more. The fact that the electromagnetic equations can be
written in a very particular notation *which was
designed* for the four-dimensional geometry of the
Lorentz transformations -- in other words, as a vector
equation in the four-space -- means that it is invariant
under the Lorentz transformations. It is because the
Maxwell equations are invariant under those transformations
that they can be written in a beautiful form.

It is no accident that the equations of electrodynamics can
be written in the beautifully elegant form of Eq. (25.29).
The theory of relativity was developed *because it was
found experimentally* that the phenomena predicted by
Maxwell's equations were the same in all inertial systems.
And it was precisely by studying the transformation
properties of Maxwell's equations that Lorentz discovered
his transformation as the one which left the equations
invariant.

There is, however, another reason for writing the equations
in this way. It has been discovered -- after Einstein
guessed that it might be so -- that *all* of the
laws of physics are invariant under the Lorentz transformation.
That is the principle of relativity. Therefore, if we
invent a notation which shows immediately when a law
is written down whether it is invariant or not, we can
be sure that in trying to make new theories we will write
only equations which are consistent with the principle
of relativity.

The fact that the Maxwell equations are simple in this
particular notation is not a miracle, because the
notation was invented with them in mind. But the
interesting physical thing is that *every law*
of physics -- the propagation of meson waves or the
behavior of neutrinos in beta decay, and so forth --
must have this same invariance under the same transformation.
Then when you are moving at a uniform velocity in a
spaceship, all of the laws of nature transform together
in such a way that no new phenomenon will show up.
It is because the principle of relativity is a fact
of nature that in the notation of four-dimensional
vectors the equations of the world will look simple.

Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol.II (1963/1989; p.25-10)

One can relate Feynman's thought above to the domain of Newtonian
mechanics.
The fact that the Newton equations are simple in the notation of
derivatives is not a miracle, because the notation was invented
with them in mind.
But the interesting physical thing is that the same conceptual
machinery works well for all other kinds of change.
Differential calculus is an extremely powerful language for describing
change *in general*.
Nature needn't necessarily be like this--one can conceive of a universe
in which the mathematical machinery useful for describing linear
motion doesn't provide any leverage in the domain of chemical kinetics,
for instance.
That it does is an empirical fact reflecting an additional layer of
order in the universe we live in.

Before closing this topic, consider two final brief excerpts.

It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time. How can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what tiny piece of space/time is going to do. So I have often made the hypothesis that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the chequer board with all its apparent complexities. But this speculation is of the same nature as those other people make -- "I like it", "I don't like it" -- and it is not good to be too prejudiced about these things.

Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (1965; p.58)

A reasonable starting point for a discussion of the many-body problem might be the question of how many bodies are required before we have a problem. Prof. G.E. Brown has pointed out that, for those interested in exact solutions, this can be answered by a look at history. In eighteenth-century Newtonian mechanics, the three-body problem was insoluble. With the birth of general relativity around 1910, and quantum electrodynamics around 1930, the two- and one-body problems became insoluble. And with modern quantum field theory, the problem of zero bodies (vacuum) is insoluble. So, if we are out after exact solutions, no bodies at all is already too many.

Richard Mattuck, A Guide to Feynman Diagrams and the Many-Body Problem (1976)

*How can the universe start with a few types of elementary particles
at the big bang, and end up with life, history, economics, and
literature?*
The question is screaming out to be answered but it is seldom even asked.
Why did the big bang not form a simple gas of particles, or condense
into one big crystal?
We see complex phenomena around us so often that we take them for
granted without looking for further explanation. In fact, until very
recently very little scientific effort was devoted to understanding
why nature is complex.

[...] However, we do not live in a simple, boring world composed only
of planets orbiting other planets, regular infinite crystals, and
simple gases or liquids.
Our everyday situation is not that of falling apples. If we open the
window, we see an entirely different picture. The surface of the
earth is an intricate conglomerate of mountains, oceans, islands,
rivers, volcanoes, glaciers, and earthquake faults, each of which
has its own characteristic dynamics.
Unlike very ordered or disordered systems, landscapes differ from
place to place and from time to time. It is because of this variation
that we can orient ourselves by studying the local landscape around
us.
I will define systems with large variability as *complex*.
The variability may exist on a wide range of length scales.
If we zoom in closer and closer, or look out further and further,
we find variability at each level of magnification, with more and
more new details appearing.

Per Bak, How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (1996; pp.1-5)

Page maintained by Alex Petrov

Created 2000-03-11, last updated 2005-04-13.