kai_krause's picture
Software Pioneer; Philosopher; Author, A Realtime Literature Explorer

"So Much From So Little? Now That Explains A Lot!"

There is a deep fascination I have been carrying with me for decades now, ever since earliest childhood: the interplay between simplicity and complexity.

Unable to express it verbally at the time, in hindsight it seems clear: they are all about that penultimate question: what is life and how did this world come into existence?

In many stages and phases I discovered a multitude of ideas that are exactly what is called for here: deep, elegant and beautiful explanations of the principles of nature.

Simplicity is embodied in a reductionist form in the YinYang symbol: being black or white.

In other familiar words: To be or not to be.

Those basic elements combined: that is the process spawning diversity, in myriads of forms.

As a youngster I was totally immersed in 'Lego' blocks. There are a handful of basic shapes (never liked the 'special' ones and clamored instead for a bigger box of basics) and you could put them together in arrangements that become houses, ships, bridges...entire towns I had growing up the sides of my little room to the tops of wardrobes. And I sensed it then: there is something deep about this.

A bit later I got into a mechanical typewriter (what a relief to be able to type clearly, my handwriting had always been horrid—the hand not being able to keep up with the thinking... and relished the ability to put together words, sentences, paragraphs. Freezing a thought in a material fashion, putting it on paper to recall later. What's more—to let someone else follow your thinking! I sensed: this is a thing of beauty.

Then I took up playing the piano. The embryonic roots of the software designer of later decades probably shuddered at the interface: 88 unlabeled keys! Irregular intervals of black ones interspersed... and almost the exact opposite of todays "we need to learn this in one minute and no, we never ever look at manuals" attitude. It took months to make any sense of it, but despite the frustrations, it was deeply fascinating. String together a few notes with mysterious un-definable skill and out comes... deeply moving emotion?

So the plot thickens: a few Lego blocks, a bunch of lettershapes or a dozen musical notes... and you take that simplicity of utterly lame elements, put them together...and out pops complexity, meaning, beauty.

Later in the early 70s I delved into the very first generation of large synthesizers and dealt specifically with complex natural sounds being generated from simple unnatural ingredients and processes. By 1977—now in California—it was computer graphics that became the new frontier—and again: seemingly innocent little pixels combine to make ... any image—as in: anything one can imagine. Deep.

In those days I also began playing chess, and carom billiards—simple rules, a few pieces, 3 balls...but no game is ever the same. Not even close. The most extreme example of this became another real fascination: the game of GO. Just single moves of black and white stones, on a plain grid of lines with barely a handful of rules—but a huge variety of patterns emerges. Elegant.

The earliest computing, in the first computer store in the world, Dick Heyser in Santa Monica, had me try something that I had read in SciAm by Martin Gardner: Conway's 'Game of Life'. The literal incarnation of the initial premise: Simplicity reduced to that YinYang: a cell is On or Off, black or white. But there is one more thing added here now: iteration. With just four rules each cell is said to live or die and in each cycle the pattern changes, iteratively. From dead dots on paper, and static pixels on phospor, it sprang to—life! Not only patterns, but blinkers, gliders, even glider guns, heck glider gun canons! Indeed, it is now seen as a true Turing-complete machine. Artificial Life. Needless to say: very deep.

Another example in that vein are of course fractals. Half an inch of a formula, when iterated, is yielding worlds of unimaginably intricate shapes and patterns. It was a great circle closing after 20 years for me to re-examine this field, now flying through them as "frax" on a little iPhone, in realtime and in real awe.

The entire concept of the computer embodies the principles of simple on/off binary codes, much like YinYang, being put together to form still simplistic gates and then flip-flops, counters, all the way to RAM and complex CPU/GPUs and beyond. And now we have a huge matrix computer with billions of elements networked together (namely 'us', including this charming little side corridor called 'Edge'), just a little over

70 years after Zuse's Z3 we reached untold complexity—with no sign of slowing down.

Surely the ultimate example of 'simplexity' is the genetic code—four core elements being combined by simple rules to extreme complex effect—the DNA to build archaea, felis or homo somewhat sapiens.

Someone once wrote on Edge "A great analogy is like...a diagonal frog" which embodies the un-definable art of what constitutes a deep, beautiful or elegant explanation: Finding the perfect example! The lifelong encounters with "trivial ingredients turning to true beauty" recited here are in themselves neither terse mathematical proofs nor eloquently worded elucidations (such as one could quote easily from almost any Nobel laureate's prize-worthy insights).

Instead of the grandeur of 'the big formulas' I felt that the potpourri of AHA!  moments over six decades may be just as close to that holy grail of scientific thinking: to put all the puzzle pieces together in such away that a logical conclusion converges further on... the truth. And I guess one of the pillars of that truth, in my eyes, is the charmingly disarmingly miniscule insight:

 "So much from so little. Now that explains a lot!"