george_church's picture
Professor, Harvard University; Director, Personal Genome Project; Co-author (with Ed Regis), Regenesis

Elegant = Complex

Many would say the opposite, elegance = simplicity. They have (classical) physics envy—for smooth, linear physics, and describably delicious four-letter words, like "F=ma". But modern science has moved on, embracing the complex. Occam now uses a web-enabled, fractal e-razor. Even in mathematics, stripped of awkward realities of non-ideal gases, turbulence, and non-spherical cows, simple statements about integers like Fermat’s an + bn = cnand wrangling maps with four colors take many years and pages (occasionally computers) to prove.

The question is not "What is our favorite elegant explanation?", but "What should it be?" We are capable of changing not only our mind, but changing the whole fabric of human nature. As we engineer, we recurse—successively approximating ourselves as an increasingly survivable force of nature. If so, what will we ultimately admire? Our evolutionary baggage served our ancestors well, but could kill our descendants. Faced with modern foods, our frugal metabolisms feed a diabetes epidemic. Our love of "greedy algorithms" leads to exhausted resources. Our too easy switching from rationality to blind-faith or fear-based decision making can be manipulated politically to drive conspicuous consumption. (Think Easter Island 163 km2 of devastation scaled to Earth Island at 510 million km2).  "Humans" someday may be born with bug-fixes for dozens of current cognitive biases as well as intuitive understanding and motivation to manipulate quantum weirdnesses, dimensions beyond three, super rare events, global economics, etc. Agricultural and cultural monocultures are evolutionarily bankrupt. Evolution was only briefly focused on surviving in a sterile world of harsh physics, but ever since has focused on life competing with itself. Elegant explanations are those that predict the future farther and better. Our explanations will help us dodge asteroids, solar red giant flares, and even close-encounters with the Andromeda galaxy. But most of all, we will diversify to deal with our own ever-increasing complexity.