More contemplation of the Bird in Space


You may recall that, a while ago, I showed you Brancusi’s Bird in Space as my overture to a brief meditation on simplicity, beauty, honesty (and Einstein). Well, I couldn’t find a copyright-kosher image of the sculpture I had in mind, so I took a different version, one that was almost as good but not quite.

This, on the left, is the version I had in mind (even though the image is crap). Everything I said stands. When you strip away all extraneous detail, the underlying form of your sculpture (argument, story, living room, body, dish, …) must speak for itself. In this case it reveals its beauty. If the underlying form is ugly, well, let’s at least find out.

How did I come by this picture? Oh, I forget. Let’s just say that an elderly Filipina museum guard made herself known rather instantaneously….

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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.


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.