Monthly Archives: February 2018

When it all becomes clear

We all have a moment, or moments, when something we knew only by rote memorization becomes something more.  We move from repeating what the answer is, to understanding why the answer is.  This is when the light bulb is turned on and what was once hidden becomes visible.  When that happens, it expands your ability to use your understanding of why, to make the what happen.

Quantum Mechanics in Chemistry

The eminent scientist Linus Pauling earned his Ph.D. in 1925 and the following year he accepted a fellowship to study under several leading physicists who were pioneering Quantum Mechanics – Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, and Arnold Sommerfeld.  Here, according to Sam Kean in his book The Disappearing Spoon, “Pauling figured out how quantum mechanics governs the chemical bonds between atoms.”  It was for this that one of Pauling’s colleagues noted that, “Chemistry could now be understood rather than being memorized.”

From this point forward, the ability to use the chemical properties improved dramatically.  Pauling himself worked on projects that produced synthetic antibodies and substitutes for blood plasma and many others on his way to receiving two Nobel prizes.

It wasn’t knowing only that chemicals reacted in a certain way, it was using Quantum Mechanics to explain why they reacted this way at the molecular level that allowed this to happen.

Human Flight

In 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institute.  He explained how he had studied the work of early aeronautical scientists and asked for all papers that the Smithsonian had published on human flight, “I wish to avail myself of all that is already known…” Wilbur and his brother Orville studied all the scientific books that they received, as well as one book titled Empire of the Air, by Louis Pierre Moullard which discussed the possibility of achieving human flight by studying the birds in flight.   The Wright Brothers observed the flight of birds looking for information on how they accomplished this feat.  “Learning the secret of flight from a bird, was a good deal like learning the secret of magic from a magician.” – Orville Wright

Wilbur then began communicating with and questioning the most well-known aeronautical engineers of the time including Octave Chanute, who gave the brothers the idea to perform their experiments on the coasts of the Carolinas (where their famous Kitty Hawk flight took place).  In a letter Wilbur wrote to Chanute, he outlined what he and Orville now understood about flight, “What is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery.”  And in a speech to the Western Society of Engineers, Wilbur shared that, “The bird has learned this art of equilibrium, and learned it so thoroughly that its skill is not apparent to our sight.  We only learn to appreciate it when we try to imitate it.”

We all know the rest of the story here.  The Wright Brothers did indeed build a plane and learn how to fly that plane which started the aeronautical revolution that let Elon Musk launch the latest Space X rocket last month.

It wasn’t knowing only that birds can, it was discovering why birds fly that allowed this to happen.


The takeaway for us is the knowledge of why things happen is out there for the asking.  Don’t settle for learning that something happens in a certain way, discover why it happens in a certain way and you will achieve great things – When it all becomes clear.

“Isn’t it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years, just so we could discover them!” – Orville Wright

Don’t take the simple answer, take the simplest answer.

If you want the right answer to a given question or hypothesis, it is may not be the first one you come upon.  It is likely not one which is just simple, but it should be the simplest.  This means that in order to select the right answer you may need to look more than once to see all the potential answers clearly so that the simplest can be chosen.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein 

The most well-known version of taking the simplest answer is called Occam’s razor.  Named after William of Occam, a 14th century philosopher, it states generally that within a number of explanations for a set of facts, the one that is the simplest is preferred.  Occam’s razor is also known as “lex parsimoniae,” Latin for the Law of Parsimony. This idea is not just a philosophical notion.  In science, the Parsimony Principle says choose the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence. In statistical modeling, a Parsimonious Model is said to use the simplest model with the least assumptions and variables but with the greatest explanatory power.

Finding the simplest answer among the possible answers is good advice for every choice we make.  Here are three simple steps to find the simplest answer:

Expand your choices. When facing the need to make a decision, ensure that the relevant facts are known.  Don’t make decisions based on limited knowledge which will lead to the simple answer.  Instead, dig deeper to see what may not be immediately evident.  Challenge the limited assumptions.  Ask questions like, “If this assumption isn’t right, what else could be driving this outcome?”

Ask the experts.  It’s likely that there is someone who has at least attempted to solve the same question, if not one that is similar.  If you can, ask them personally to share their views.  If not personally, then read or listen to, what they have said on the topic.

Examine your choices. Now that there are multiple possible answers, they need to be analyzed to further understand the impact of each one being the right.   Challenge the many assumptions, “If this is true in this situation, what does that mean in another situation?”  Or, “If this is true at this point, what must also be true to support it?”

From these questions, the assumptions needed to support each answer will be known and can be compared.

Extract your one choice.  At this point, there are several potential answers with multiple assumptions for each.  Challenge the many answers, “What do I have to believe in order for this answer to be the one I choose?”

From this exercise you will settle in on the one that has the simplest assumptions.   And that is your answer.


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