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The Universe Is Simple

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Is life simple? It seems a preposterous idea. But bear with me.

If you think about it, the most amazing and wonderful thing about our universe is that it can be understood and manipulated by a few very simple scientific laws. The universe could operate according to no fixed laws, or laws so complicated that we could never hope to understand them. Indeed, this was the fate of everyone for most of human history. The universe was inscrutable, so gods were invented to explain why harvests might fail or good fortune arrive. The gods were capricious, unpredictable, and often fought each other. Life was a mess, and trying to understand it a fool's errand.

Does The Universe Make Sense?

Monotheism and science have rescued us from this quagmire. The belief in one all-powerful God - the inestimably marvellous heritage of Judaism, appropriated and deepened by Christianity - was a necessary step to believing in an ordered and logical world, in which science and progress were possible. Everything had a purpose, and the job of thinkers was to work out what. Eventually, scientists such as Copernicus and Isaac Newton began to uncover the laws of nature and express them in simple words and numbers. The search for simplicity was also the search for truth.

As John Barrow from the University of Cambridge says, "our belief in the simplicity of nature springs from the observation that there are regularities which we call 'laws' of nature ... Laws reflect the existence of patterns in nature. We might even define science as the search for those patterns." Moreover, "the laws of nature are few in number, and getting fewer" as we learn more.

Without the belief that nature is basically logical and, in some deep way, makes sense, we wouldn't try to fathom the world around us. We wouldn't be able to improve on it. If reality makes no sense, science is a fool's errand.

Yet not only does nature make sense; it makes sense in an extremely economical way. The universe is not one damn thing after another. It has a structure that is incredibly consistent and repetitive.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was the first to propose that the world comprised a huge number of identical atoms that did not evolve over time. "The fact that nature displays populations of identical elementary particles," says Barrow, "is its most remarkable property." What could be simpler than having identical building blocks, so that the universe resembles a huge Lego kit? As Richard Feynman once said, perhaps after a glass of red wine, "once you've seen one electron, you've seen 'em all."

Why is Mathematics Simple?

Simplicity extends even further. Barrow asks why the world is mathematical. His answers that "mathematics is simply the catalogue of all possible patterns of reality ... it is inevitable that the world is described by mathematics. We could not exist in a universe in which there was neither pattern nor order. The description of that order is what we call mathematics."

And yet, Barrow goes on, the really useful thing about mathematics is its simplicity: "it could have been that the patterns behind the world were of such complexity that no simple algorithms could approximate them." If that had been the case "we would have been unable to predict the future using mathematics in the way that NASA's mission control does."

"Seen in this light ... the great mystery about mathematics and the world is that such simple mathematics is so far-reaching. Very simple patterns, described by mathematics that is easily within our grasp, allow us to explain and understand a huge part of the universe."

Words can attempt to describe simplicity, but numbers compress, check and beautifully express the simplest and most fundamental facts about life. Numbers are the poetry of simplicity.

In business, too, numbers play the same role. Everything ultimately comes back to cash. Nothing is worthwhile or sustainable unless it generates more cash than it absorbs. Nothing could be more simple or inescapable.

Why Simple Models Are Best

Psychologist Richard Nisbett says that "simple models are the most useful ones - because they're easier to disprove and consequently to improve upon." But I think there are two more profound reasons why simple models are best.

One is that a simple model is elegant and true. If we can remove the complications of exceptions and irrelevant detail, we can glimpse the majesty of something truly astonishing, of rules that work universally. Truth is elusive, but ultimately it is there. In getting closer to the truth, we not only test ourselves, our intellect, and our emotions; we also become co-creators of a better reality. By working with the grain of the universe, instead of against it, we begin to realize the potential of consciousness.

The other reason is that we can use simple models. Even if they were less true, they would be more useful. As you go about your daily life, do you feel certain about what you are doing? That it all has a purpose? That improvement is possible? Or do you feel that life is just so horribly complex that you have no control over anything?

Simple models are the only ones we can use. And they are incredibly powerful.

For example, this is a pathetically simple model, that psychologists have validated - if you are nice to someone, the odds of them being nice back to you are greatly improved.

Another simple model is that if you believe in something, and your power to make it happen, it is more likely to.

Another is that the number 1 firm in a market will make more money than one that is number 2 or 3.

And if the firm is a leader in a high growth market, it will increase wealth far faster than in any other position.

Another is the 80/20 principle - that there is always a minority of forces, good and bad, that dominate outcomes. Few things matter, but they matter enormously.

Why can't we get our minds around the enormity of a few really simple ideas and models, that really work?

Is it because we know too much, and instinctively give equal weight to everything we know?

Or is it because, against all the evidence of science and experience, we don't expect the world to make sense? Ultimately we find what we look for.

Next week I will present the opposite case - that the universe is really complex. And then I will try to solve the apparent contradiction.

But until then, enjoy the simplicity of life, science, and business. And a sneak preview - even if life is in some ways incredibly complex, it is also stunningly simple.