- Monday, June 16, 2014

Why an Elephant?

An elephant seems like a pretty good mascot for a site about complex biological systems. The reason I specifically like to use elephants as my go-to examples (besides being adorable) is in homage to an old physics joke that exemplifies a fundamental problem with explaining the most complicated things on Earth...

As the story goes, two scientists walked into a bar after a long day analyzing their data. The younger scientist, wanting to show off, started describing his most intricate new theory. After listening for a few minutes, the old wizened scientist interrupted his young colleague, saying, "now hold on kid, just how many free parameters do you have in that model of yours." The younger scientist paused to count on his hands, and replied "Only 4." To that, the elder scientist, rolled his eyes, and replied,

"With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk."

What the elder scientist was trying to say was that by just adding extra vague, overcomplicated stuff you can make any explanation look believable. We all face a serious problem when we set out to understand how biological systems work: those systems end up being ridiculously complicated. And when people present complicated things, it becomes really hard to make decisions about how to use those things. My number one goal on this site is to make every complicated explanation simple enough that everybody can make sure that it's right. To me, that's the most important thing we need in order for us to make decisions about these new technologies.

I've paraphrased this little anecdote a lot for brevity, but here's the actual story as told by the young scientist, Freeman Dyson.

Personally, I think it would be awesome if we could figure out how to engineer something as big and complex as an elephant. To do that, we have a lot of basic things to figure out first.

In the meantime, check out this post on drawing this site's elephant logo with only four parameters!!!

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