Brancusi, Einstein, simplicity and beauty

If non-conformity and “impudence” are the first ingredients in the astonishing creativity of a man such as Einstein, as I said here, are there yet other ingredients? Of course. And the most important, in my opinion, is an appreciation of simplicity.

More than most people I know, I yearn for simplicity in my life–on my desk, in my file folders, in my home decoration, in my writing, my sentences and of course my thoughts. Quite probably, that is because there is far too much complexity in all of these.

When I approach a new topic, as I did a years ago when I, who was a technophobe, took over the tech beat at The Economist, I first run it through my complexity/simplicity filter. At that time I came up with this.

If I had to choose a favorite sculptor, it might be Brancusi, who grasped simplicity as well as anybody. It is at heart an uncluttering. In Brancusi’s case, he strips a thing of all unnecessary detail in order to reveal its underlying form.

Simplicity is thus also a form of honesty. Once the underlying form of a thing is revealed, you know whether it has beauty or, in the case of writing, also substance. Some of you may recall my idiosyncratic way of reading, by copying and pasting a long document into my word processor, then deleting all extraneous detail as I go along. In effect, I force simplicity onto, say, a research paper. Often, this is how I realize that the boffin in question was a windbag and had nothing to say, hiding behind verbose complexity. Other times, I realize I have hit a treasure trove.

Back to Einstein. Isaac Newton in his Principia had already said that

Nature is pleased with simplicity.

Einstein extended his hunch, saying that

Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.

and

I have been guided not be the pressure from behind of experimental facts, but by the attraction in front from mathematical simplicity.

What goes for sculptors, inventors, physicists and other forms of homo sapiens goes especially for writers.

13 thoughts on “Brancusi, Einstein, simplicity and beauty

  1. “…….I force simplicity onto, say, a research paper. Often, this is how I realize that the boffin in question was a windbag and had nothing to say, hiding behind verbose complexity…………”

    It is axiomatic that windbaggery (or prolixity) is the stock-in-trade of academics. Thus, students who write term papers must write them in academese to get a passing grade.

    I read somewhere recently that the owner of one of the large (Chicago?) newspapers, in the interests of efficiency, will pay his paper’s journalists by the word. This should make for great reading.

    I clicked on the link to your Economist article on simplicity, and was disconcerted to learn that to read your piece, I must pay money.

    Since I felt this was just not cricket, I declined.

  2. Andreas:
    Your idiosyncratic approach to deleting the extraneous from your works, is spot on with William Ockham (c. 1285–1349), a nominalist who, when confronted with a complex question, would shave away (explaining the Razor) any unnecessary assumptions and complexities and go with the most humble explanation as the one likely to be the true answer. Occam’s Razor describes the process of stripping away the complex because it is usually loaded with more assumptions and complexities that cannot be tested. The simple, on the other hand, when supported by empirical evidence, is often tangible, understandable, and more marketable as the truth. However, Occam’s Razor should not be considered a hard and fast rule applicable to all questions or conundrums. A theory that is simple to the master and complex to the student should not show a preference to the student’s view when the more complex theory can be supported by true empirical evidence. I am going to get way over my head…I simply going with my recognition that better organization and simplicity in my personal and business life will probably afford me a much better chance of enjoying a productive and healthy path than one comprised of unnecessary complexities. Ergo, my return to the $1.49 Topps note pad for my to-do list…and my Dad’s well -worn shop pencil that I hand sharpen.

  3. Christopher, so sorry about that hassle. Believe me, this experience would have fallen far short of cricket.

    I share your frustration about our subscriber wall. I have been in a tug-of-war for years with our business side to drop it. I succeeded partially when they took it down for the first year of any particular article’s life, and I hope that it will go altogether. It is unenlightened nowadays. (I could talk forever about it.)

    Steve, thanks for that explanation. I’ve always been confused about Occam’s Razor, but now it makes perfect sense. In fact, you made me visit the Wikipedia page, which has some great stuff, including simplicity quotes by Leonardo da Vinci, at the bottom…

  4. Homo sapiens including the great Spinal Tap musician, Nigel Tufnel: ‘It’s like, how much more black could this be? and the answer is none. None more black.’

  5. Andreas,
    Last night I stumbled across a video of your discussions with Alvin Toffler. I had all but forgotten what a formidable thinker he is! It was a great experience.
    Regarding your January 2nd post addressing the subject of simplicity, one of my favorite Einstein quotes remains, “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.” It’s right up there with”Everything should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler.”
    John Maeda has written a wonderful little book on
    the Laws of simplicity. He also keeps a blog at: http://weblogs.media.mit.edu/SIMPLICITY/
    Simplicity fascinates me. I look forward to following your book!

  6. Thanks, Eddie. You mean this interview I did with Toffler. That was fun. He is very charming in person. But a few years ago now.

    John Maeda is great. I interviewed him for that Special Report (then called “Survey”) I linked to in my post above. He has the opening quote in the first chapter. I should catch up with his latest.

    Thanks for checking in!

  7. Good Morning, Andreas.

    This question has little to do with this post, but since you have no e-mail contact on this blog, I will ask my question here. Here better than Wu-Wei. 😀

    I am reading Plato, again. Which Dialogue, in your view, is the most relevant today? I finished Phaedrus. Plato’s observations about rhetoric vs. writing make me think.

    I am on to another dialogue.

    (enjoyed The Clouds!)

  8. Hi Cheri,

    My god, you overestimate me. The last time I read these dialogues systematically was in college. Now I let my attention go wherever it roams.

    I always liked the Symposium. The topic is love–all forms of it–and you will find some of the opinions expressed quite, shall we say, modern, even in a Bay Area way. But it’s a real party conversation, so the dialogue rambles and in the process tells you a lot about their time.

    There is also a great moment when it’s Aristophanes’ (you just read him) turn to speak and he can’t because he has …. hiccups.

    Incidentally, I do have an email form on my About Me page…

  9. Pingback: simplicity « ~
  10. I’ve come to simplicity via an indirect route. Growing up with northern design (think IKEA), in a town based on functionalism, simplicity was so much around me, I didn’t know anything else. Of cource I had seen the garish pillows of my grandparents adorning greenish sofas and chairs in pink; but that was the fluff of life – on top of everything else.

    Then when I started my higher education I started analysing. I study sociology; and it wasnt that things becamse simpler as I got deeper into the subjects, rather the opposite, but the tools for compartmentalising social behavior, alowed me to see the sometimes simple mechanisms and structures underlying spaces.

    Since I’ve tried to take pictures that teach this simplicity, or density of complexity to others. The truth was tied to simplicity, and I found that as I started doing this, the images also became more beautiful. They spoke of an idea, rather than a messy frame.

    As an atheist this connection between the perceived true nature of things, and beauty is maybe the most abstract belief I can identify in my self. But that relationship is nothing less than that between theory and reality.

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