Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Flourishing: Complexity

Information can seem rather like a hydra -- cut off one head, answer one question, get results to one experiment -- and exponentially more come writhing out. I've noticed, in some of my reading and learning, a disturbing trend of many fields of expertise to make what I might call a complexity leap. Human knowledge reaches a point at which it appears we're poised to completely master something -- for example, Newtonian physics or the human genome -- but then suddenly we're plunged into the deep, deep water of quantum mechanics and epigenetics. (Charm quarks and histone acetylation, anyone? A far cry from the famous double helix and objects at rest.) 

It's almost the opposite of the 'line upon line' concept of learning; the trends and predictions that all the previous information might have indicated just sort of go off a cliff at a certain point. A complexity cliff, if you will.

Especially problematically, the new layers of inquiry that such complexity demands are nearly impossible to measure or detect, much less manipulate or untangle. The level at which we perceive and interact with our world appears vastly removed from the level it actually functions at. I'd be willing to bet that we're facing a few leaps in complexity in other fields, as well, though I'm not an expert there: computing, communications, the microbiome, how our minds work, astronomy, and many others. 

Technology offers us increasingly powerful new tools, and we're just fools enough to think they will iron out the last theoretical wrinkles and bring us to the pinnacle of understanding. Instead, we fall off the edge into some odd, otherworldly soup of Escher, Dali and Picasso and wonder what happened. 

Of course, I think nutrition is being affected by this problem. We used to just have the basic food groups, along with simple vitamins to ward off scurvy and rickets; now we have a pantheon of macronutrients and micronutrients, gluten-free and low-glycemic charts, ratios and absorption levels of omega fats, etc. It's fascinating, but it makes me tired just thinking about it.

Still, I love to learn, and complexity is a real mental turn-on for me. At the same time, I believe pretty strongly in the line upon line, precept upon precept model. So how do the two fit together? What's the 'universal theory' that guides my knowledge-seeking? I don't know yet, but I have experienced those exhilarating moments when patient accumulation of facts, techniques, and patterns suddenly brings a new, explosive unity of understanding. I've been especially grateful, these past few years, to have opportunities to combine lots of types of learning and experience, to build on patterns and tweak them and weave in new knowledge as I go. Cooking has been a good medium to do all that -- it can be both sensual and academic -- but I hope that I'm really just priming my mind to dive into more of my favorite issues down the road, in all their complexity.

*Reading scientific history can be far from dry, by the way; Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is full of miraculous discoveries, unsolved mysteries, epic fiascos, and characters in all shades of quirky, menacing, and tragic. A good mental romp.

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