elegance in science

IMG_1863A great piece on the New Yorker’s website this week by Patrick House on what scientists mean by “elegance.”  This has echoes in the design world’s inability to describe what, exactly, makes something we turn out “elegant,” or “sweet,” or “boss,” or any number of other exclamations that indicate a shared sense–often just among the design cognoscenti–that someone’s done their job really well.  L and I have a running joke about the word “compelling,” which seems to get closer to the problem of describing the neuronal flutter we tend to get when we see a problem solved fluently, efficiently, and expressively…but even a term that diligent still leaves us grasping for a description of exactly what the hell is happening when we put our hand on a Scarpa handrail.

House starts with the “you know it when you see it” gambit.  Sweetness is akin to obscenity in that sense, but he nicely shifts into high gear when he tries to define elegance by thinking about its opposites: “baroque” and “clunky” both qualify, which seems to apply to design as well as science.  Clearly there’s a broad spectrum of inelegance, too.

The best technical definition House can come up with comes from a paper in the unlikely journal Nature Nanotechnology:

“When a theory or a model explains a phenomenon clearly, directly and economically, we say it is elegant: one idea, easy to understand, can account for a large amount of data and answer many questions.”

That’s pretty sweet (see?), but House also quotes astrophysicist Alyssa Goodman, who thinks that:

“There is something about the way things fit together, a kind of fluidity. If it is done right, and elegantly, you do not see all the individual parts, because they all fit together in a way that looks like a whole.”

Totally boss, right?

“She was talking, unfortunately, about tennis.”

Astrophysics, iPhones, stair details, and forehand serves…the elegance continuum apparently encompasses multitudes…

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