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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Reducing complexity to simplicity ...

I have often been struck by the way we, as a supposedly sentient and intelligent species, always try to reduce vast complex concepts, mechanisms or problems to single 'simple' issues. It's a bit like the Hollywood movie bomb defuser - usually an amateur - who always cuts the 'blue' wire and saves the XXX with only a couple of seconds left on the timer. It always makes me want it to be the 'wrong' wire ...

A recent article on Watts Up With That, by Willis Eschenbach titled "What we don't know" got me thinking about this. I've certainly encountered this tendency in much less complex disciplines than "climate science" and so have many of my former colleagues. It manifests itself in almost every field of human endeavour. We simply don't seem to like to wrestle with anything more complex or more involved than the things we are able to see, smell, hear or touch. Anything bigger has to be reduced to something we can grasp.

In my own field I have often encountered the midset of 'too much information' when discussing the need to understand the complex interactions of materials involved in a fire. It is surprising how many don't like to go beyond the "Fire Triangle" of Air, Heat, Fuel. Suggest the quadrangle which adds "Sustained Chain Reaction" and you can see the glazed expressions - especially when you then start to discuss the whole problem of conversion from solid or liquid state to gas, or how partcile size matters, or the pyrolysation temperatures of different fuel sources contribute to the rate of fire spread, heat release and ...

See, I suspect many readers are already scrolling down.

The problem, in my profession, with NOT understanding this is that there is then a move twoard taking decisions with the best of intentions, which can actually make things worse. There are plenty of examples, my (and many of my former colleagues) favourite is the "fire test certificate" which is bandied about by many fire protection inspectors, building control officers and some 'fire engineers' ( a term Josephus gets up in arms about). They firmly believe that because material 'X' has passed a fire test in a laboratory to meet certain criteria, this means it will perform that way when placed in a different configuration, with materials 'Y' and 'Z' and this means the structure is now compliant for fire safety. The problem is that the laboratory tests are only indicators, and changing the position of a material, or putting it with another material in a different configuration changes the entire ball game.

This is one of the problems with so-called 'fire resistant' and 'fire retardant' materials. In the public mind, they are often refered to as 'non-combustible' but that is false. They are simply more difficult to ignite, but often, when they do ignite, are a lot nastier than they would be in an unmodified form. In a laboratory all the parameters are controlled. The quantity exposed to ignition is limited, the material is on its own, with no other materials present, and the heat is contained. Other materials are not pyrolysing and adding to the fuel already on fire, so the fuel exposure is also limited. When you put the same material in a room, rovide it with a whole range of other materials to 'play with' and ignite it, you get a totally different response - which will not show on the 'Test Certificate' the unwary have accepted.

This problem has become so serious that many manufacturers are now seriously concerned that their products are being improperly used - but how do they prevent it?

I can certainly understand why most of us accept the utterances of Dr Hawking, or Dr Dawkins when they pronounce on matters related to their branches of scientific research. I'm certainly unlikely to be able to grasp the complicated mathematics that underpins Quantum Mechanics, String Theory or any of the other popular (among hysicists) theories of creation, the universe and so on. I am aware that science has discovered that the great big ball of fire we call the sun expands and contracts on a regular cycle - almost as if it were some living thing breathing steadily. I am also aware that the fusion reaction which keeps it going involves some extremely complex atom smashing, remodelling and combination. Presumably generating all manner of subatomic particles such as the Higgs and other Bososn, Twangons, Clangons and the occasional Bangon. They probably explain the fact that the sound actually emits a steady sound which has been recorded by solar observatories.

It is all very, very interesting (to a geek like me) but I don't even begin to grasp the intricate complexites  of the entire process. I leave that to the astrophysicists.

We see the same thing happening in any given religion. The theology underpinning it is a totally unexplored country for most believers and they tend to focus on the simplest interpretation of everything. Can't explain miracles? Simple, it's a miracle! The concept of a God big enough to be as one Jewish Rabbi explained to me, who is everywhere, everywhen and everyhow all at the same time, is what leads most to cling to the image painted by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel - a 'Super Human' figure lounging on a cloud and reaching out to 'Adam'.

Does that really describe the Creator of the Universe? Of course not, but any other image is probably far, far too complex and far too large for most of us. So they cling to the simple.

Returning to my analogy of the fire inspector clinging to the belief that a 'fire test certificate' guarantees compliance, the sad reality is that quite often it means that he or she is accepting a situation which is a long way from what they think it is. Often it is not what we know and can see which is likely to kill us - it is what we don't know, or don't understand.

As Mr. Essenbach's article reminded me, 96% of the universe is made up of matter and energy we don't understand, can't see and can only measure because it affects everything else. As the saying goes, the only thing which exceeds our arrogance in assuming we know everything, is the depth and breadth of our ignorance about everything.

1 comment:

  1. The cladding on Dubai's towers must be an in joke on the whole safety industry.

    When a 20 year drug user decided to build a balcony BBQ out of wood he smashed on the spot, to have a fry up when his electricity meter ran put of credit, Darwinism comes to the fore.