The NYTimes is breathless this morning about a new “climate model” that says Antarctica is going to melt and we are all going to die some grisly, drowning death. (OK, I exaggerate slightly, but still….) It set me to thinking about elegance:
Elegance is beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is frequently used as a standard of tastefulness particularly in the areas of visual design, decoration, the sciences, and the aesthetics of mathematics. Elegant things exhibit refined grace and dignified propriety.
There is nothing elegant about computer climate models. Most people at some point in their education encounter Newton’s three laws of motion. It is extraordinarily fundamental science. What most people may never realize is how incredibly elegant they are. They are short, easily understandable, and only really require algebra to put to very good use. (Yes, calculus was invented by Newton, and simultaneously by Liepniz, when he was trying to come up with them, but calculus is not required to manipulate or use the basic laws.) They are how we got men on the moon. Do you realize that the much vaunted computers on the Apollo spacecraft were less powerful than a calculator you can buy for twenty bucks today? That’s elegance. Newton’s laws changed the world in three short, declarative, mathematical sentences.
By contrast, computer climate models are ugly, nasty , brutish things. They are impossible to manipulate without electronic aid – literally too big and too complex for human hands to conduct the necessary calculations in a lifetime. Heck even an army of people might not be able to get the job done. Even today they require some of the most sophisticated computing equipment available. They involve arrays of computers by the score to perform their calculational magic. These climate models compare to Newton’s laws like the entire series of Game of Thrones books compare to a paragraph. They are not elegant.
When I was studying science in undergrad and graduate school elegance was part of what told you you had it right. When it happened it was like tapping into the mind of God. That’s how science started, it was an effort to learn more of God by learning about His creation. Part of what we learned was God’s beauty and elegance. God created this massive, mighty, and seemingly complex universe, and yet when we tried hard enough to understand what He was doing we found it operated on simple, direct, understandable, even beautiful principles.
When our efforts at science take us into something as complex as computer climate models either we have not yet found the mind of God, or we think our understanding is God’s created order. Neither one of these is a good thing. One says we have to keep working and the other borders on blasphemy.
There is an aesthetic and spiritual choice in choosing to “believe” the climate models. Aesthetically one is choosing the brutish over the elegant. Spiritually one is choosing man’s mind over God’s. But then brutish, man-centered choices seem to the the order of the day.
From our choices in music, art, and entertainment to how our political campaigns are conducted, brutishness seems to be the order of the day. Even our daily transactions seem more brutish than ever. Customer service these days is a brutish, brutish thing. I was recently hung up upon by the manufacturer of my dishwasher (4 figure dishwasher) when I called them directly because the phone bank company in India they hired to manage a safety recall told me it would take 6 months to repair my dishwasher that they also informed me was unsafe to operate. That’s brutish. When the president utters “I won” – that’s brutish.
Brutish can be fun (think professional wrestling or a superhero movie), but that does not make it a good way to conduct life. My heart and my soul long for the mind of God and the elegance His mind built into His creation. I grow weary of a mankind that seems to glory in its brutishness instead of search earnestly and with energy for the elegant.
Last weekend marked the church’s celebration of history’s most elegant act. The death of one man, God incarnate, paid the penalty for all our brutishness. Three words, ,”It is finished,” became a pivot point for all of human history. That’s elegance defined. And as Jesus was resurrected in glory, so should we choose to leave our brutishness behind and capture just a bit of that glory.