Meaning of: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler

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Meaning of: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

I'm new to physics, but have been reading biographies and watching documentaries on physics for the past year (before I take it next year in school).

I've heard that Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

I'm wondering what he meant by that? It was confusing, because I thought physics is not simple at all!!! Do you guys know what he was referring to or what he even meant at all? I've seen this quote actually from a lot of websites too. Thanks a lot for your thoughts. I hope to learn more from this site as well.
 

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  • #2
NascentOxygen
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Hi wlcgeek! Welcome to PHYSICS! I hope you enjoy your stay. :cool:
I've heard that Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
I have no idea what he meant by that, but if he was referring to the complexity that scientists should bring into their explanation when answering questions on science [whether to the man in the street, or to students], then I think he is spot on.
 
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  • #3
Filip Larsen
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I assume he was referring to theories having emergent properties while at the same time adhering to the principle of Occam's razor. If you can make a theory with just enough "parts" so that a desired property emerges you have found a "sweet spot" in the complexity of that theory. Take anything away from the theory and you will loose the property, add some more and the property will still be there meaning what you added is not contributing to the property in question.

Or in other words (with some amount of hand waving), I believe he meant that a theory should not be so simple that it cannot explain anything interesting and it should not be so complex that it explain a lot that does not exist.
 
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  • #4
sophiecentaur
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Physics is Reductionist.
It tries to convey the best description of a system that it can in the simplest possible way.
This avoids producing descriptions that at over-full but also avoids descriptions that fail to explain enough.
It is not surprising that Maths is such an integral part of modern Physics because, quite literally, an Equation speaks a thousand words and cannot easily be mis-interpreted.

I think people often get Albert wrong about his attitude to Physics. I reckon he was a bit disingenuous and self effacing when he claimed 'simplicity'. He used lots of cuddly stories and pictures when explaining things and claimed to have used such strategies for arriving at some of his blisteringly important conclusions. You still had to be Einstein to get there, though and the deep theory was never far from his reasoning, I'm sure. Let's face it, it's ever so easy to come up with a "noddy' story about some physical phenomenon that is just nonsense. That's my problem with the over-use of analogy.
 
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  • #5
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It turns out Einstein "quotes" are, more often than not, paraphrases, probably because the original statement, as he wrote or said it, was not (ironically in the present context) stated as simply as possible:

Einstein said:
It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

According to Wiki that comes from: "On the Method of Theoretical Physics" The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1934), pp. 163-169., p. 165. [thanks to Dr. Techie @ www.wordorigins.org and JSTOR]

Wiki suggests a history of the paraphrase:
There is a quote attributed to Einstein that may have arisen as a paraphrase of the above quote, commonly given as “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” or “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” See this article from the Quote Investigator for a discussion of where these later variants may have arisen.
This may seem very similar to Occam's razor which advocates the simplest solution. However, it is normally taken to be a warning against too much simplicity. Dubbed 'Einstein's razor', it is used when an appeal to Occam's razor results in an over-simplified explanation that leads to a false conclusion.
The earliest known appearance of Einstein's razor is an essay by Roger Sessions in the New York Times (8 January 1950)[1], where Sessions appears to be paraphrasing Einstein: “I also remember a remark of Albert Einstein, which certainly applies to music. He said, in effect, that everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.”
Another early appearance, from Time magazine (14 December 1962)[2]: “We try to keep in mind a saying attributed to Einstein—that everything must be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein
 
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Perhaps he was exhorting us to eschew obfuscation but not inordinately.
 
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Ben Niehoff
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Perhaps he was exhorting us to eschew obfuscation but not inordinately.
Gesundheit.
 
  • #8
mathwonk
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I always considered it sort of a cynical joke professors use when students complain the lecture was not understandable.
 
  • #9
ghwellsjr
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I always thought he meant if you make it as simple as possible, it works--if you make it simpler, then it's impossible and it doesn't work.
 
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  • #10
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Probably the same thing Hercule Poirot meant when he said he fits theory to the facts unlike Hastings who fit the facts to the theory.
 
  • #11
sophiecentaur
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Probably the same thing Hercule Poirot meant when he said he fits theory to the facts unlike Hastings who fit the facts to the theory.
"It's the leetle grey cells, mon ami".
 
  • #12
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"It's the leeetle grey cells, mon ami".
No it ain't; it is elementary, my dear Sophiecentaur
 
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  • #13
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Don't know why this was bumped from over a year ago, but I see it as essentially a restatement of occam's razor.
 
  • #14
sophiecentaur
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No it ain't; it is elementary, my dear Sophiecentaur
A lemon tree, my dear Watson?
 
  • #16
sophiecentaur
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A pun my word! What a difference the use of the indefinite article, rather than the definite article can make to a message.
 
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A pun my word! What a difference the use of the indefinite article, rather than the definite article can make to a message.
:p

P.S. Holmes really does recommend Martyrdom of Man and it really is a good read...
 
  • #18
sophiecentaur
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I believe he also painted his hallway yellow. "A lemon entry my dear Watson."
(I refuse to be sensible about this!)
I happen to be in the middle of 'The Complete Sherlock Holmes' (Kindle freebee) and he is such an annoying character. Shame that Moriarty didn't actually sort him out for good at that waterfall!
 
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I believe he also painted his hallway yellow. "A lemon entry my dear Watson."
(I refuse to be sensible about this!)
I happen to be in the middle of 'The Complete Sherlock Holmes' (Kindle freebee) and he is such an annoying character. Shame that Moriarty didn't actually sort him out for good at that waterfall!
And this signifies the start of a blood feud...[I can't help but take this personally.]
The game is afoot.
So you prefer papa whiskers to Sherlock Holmes--- the world's first amateur consulting detective?
 
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  • #20
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'It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one
begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.'
Sherlock Holmes Quote
-A Scandal in Bohemia
Put much better than M. Egghead ever could.
 
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  • #21
My take on it was that a theory should have no extra structure, no more than it needs to. So this is the same as saying that it should have the most explaining power of phenomena with the fewest principles, or where the ideas come from a basis. Part of the problem today in physics is that there is no sound basis to have a unified theory. Gr and Qm have reached their limits. The second part of the saying is that a theory must not lack the ability to explain things that are real (what real is is quite another tale in its own right) or measured empirically. A square may be inscribed in a circle, and if one built a model with axis could spin and produce air currents, but this is "too simple" an explanation of Coriolis effects, which have to do with rotation and geometry of another type.
 
  • #22
joey389
I always thought he meant if you make it as simple as possible, it works--if you make it simpler, then it's impossible and it doesn't work.
I'm with you on that one.

Invent machines (simpler) to do many (simple) human jobs then many humans are out of jobs because machines only need few people to operate a machine.
 
  • #23
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What Einstein said only fitted probably well with his own situation at the time of speaking. This is one reason why personal philosophies are not scientifically correct at all time.
Invent machines (simpler) to do many (simple) human jobs then many humans are out of jobs because machines only need few people to operate a machine.
People have pro and con ideas about this too. But creating a machine which can perform like a human being is still too far away from our current civilization.
 
  • #24
DreamRealty
A lemon tree, I loved that.

Simpler than simple really isn't simple any more... Simple.

M
 
  • #25
epenguin
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I have always been under the impression, now you ask I don't really know where I got it, that he was referring not to scientific theories but to their popularisation. Suggesting that he approved of the efforts people have made towards popularisation e.g. of relativity, as he had himself, but that he felt some simplifications amounted to falsifications or at least missing the point. Perhaps it was his way of saying "read my book". :oldbiggrin:

Popular scientific publications and books, in my opinion, do quite a good job on the whole. But I think it's problematic when it comes to Einstein's sort of area - deep fundamental physics, and also advanced maths. I have never really felt the popularisations of string theory and the like, even the standard model, actually explained the theories to me. They do explain what it is all about, what people are talking about or working on and why. Plus a bit of a academic gossip. So in that sense they bring science to the masses. But for actually understanding it, well, I'd say maybe we get some handwaving analogies.

Or take Fermat's last theorem. From the popularisations people will have been able to understand what this theorem is. And then that it is not really all that important, but you could prove it if you could prove a far more important theorem. Which is that all snarks are boojums. But the authors seem to be reluctant to give literally an informative picture of a snark (elliptic functions) and really no idea at all of what a boojum (modular form) is. On the other hand it gives some idea about how these people in the rarefied elite work, and personal gossiping character sketches etc. and, how this math is in one way similar to that we know - making symbolic deductions in chains written on paper, another way it is just like nothing we know and quite another thing.

I sometimes call this is sort of thing (which I eagerly lap up by the way) explaining without explanation, or vice versa. Perhaps really explaining is impossible, and those who try have just done the best they can to give impressions in the ways outlined above. Or perhaps it is possible but very hard to do, and it has rarely or never been done yet.
 

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