2006 Academic Convocation

Confronting Complexity
John Hanson, Chemistry

This past semester I was discussing the Diels-Alder reaction with my organic chemistry students. One of the interesting things about the Diels-Alder reaction is that when the two starting molecules react there are several possible ways for them to join together, but usually only one product predominates.  As part of our discussion I provided a simple model for predicting which product would form.  Then I caught myself uttering that favorite phrase of professors everywhere, "Of course it is more complicated than that…." After a moment of reflection I turned to my class and said, "By this point in your academic careers you realize that we teachers don't actually tell you the truth."  The students looked at me with bemused smiles as I started to go off on a tangent about the nature of education.  (Students always seem to love it when I start going "off topic", I guess its like pulling off of a paved highway and going four-wheeling, it might not get you any closer to your destination, but it is certainly a fun ride.)  Anyway, I quickly reigned myself in and returned to a discussion of chemistry.  But what I would like to do today is to follow that tangent.

One of my family's favorite authors is Terry Pratchett.  In his fantasy novels he creates fictional worlds through which he can illuminate many of the humorous aspects of our own world.  In Pratchett's book Thief of Time, Lu-Tze, a monastery sweeper who is actually a Zen master and cultivates Bonsai mountains, remarks,

"Y'know, most of what you get taught is lies.  It has to be.  Sometimes if you get the truth all at once, you can't understand it."

It seems to me that this is a very profound statement and reflects the realities of teaching and learning. So let me repeat it again.

"Y'know, most of what you get taught is lies.  It has to be.  Sometimes if you get the truth all at once, you can't understand it."

Now don't misunderstand me.  I'm not advocating that teachers should lie to their students.  But the whole truth might be so complex that it becomes impossible, or at least impractical, for the student to get it all at once.  So what a good teacher does is expose a student to as much of the complexity of a topic as the student can reasonably absorb, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.  It is like when I am playing tennis. The best matches are against players who are slightly better than I am, and thus challenge me to raise the level of my game.  If my opponent is much worse than I am, I may enjoy the match but it doesn't do much to improve my play.  On the other hand, if my opponent is much better than I am, I just get frustrated.

The best teachers know how to find this line, challenging their students to high levels of intellectual achievement, but not overwhelming them.  One such teacher was Thomas Howells, my professor for Masterworks of World Literature, a course I took during my first semester at Whitman College.

I still remember the first day, we spent the whole class period on the first nine lines of The Iliad.  I had read the first few pages the night before and thought I had a reasonable grasp on the story.  But Professor Howells opened up levels of complexity I had never imagined.  First of all we were reading it in an English translation, so naturally he had to read it to us in the original Greek so we could get a feel for the rhyme and rhythm.  And the Greek words didn't always have exact English equivalents, so he pointed out places where the translation didn't fully reflect the original meaning.  In addition, we really needed to have a thorough understanding of Greek religion, culture, and history if we were going to make full sense of the allusions in the text, so he tried to provide us with some background in these areas.   In retrospect it is amazing that we made it through nine lines in those 50 minutes.

That first day in Professor Howells's course was heady and exciting to me, I could see new worlds of understanding opening up in front of me.  But you see the problem.  If we got through only nine lines of The Iliad per day I calculated it would take about 10 years to get through the whole book!  So although Professor Howells did his best to show us the truth, that is, a full understanding of The Iliad, in the end he (and we) had to be satisfied with only a partial understanding, albeit much more complete then when we started.

But it is always the case that we have to simplify in order to understand, we can't normally get the whole truth all at once, or ever.  Education is simply the process by which we learn to confront (or maybe embrace would be a better word) greater and greater complexity, to get closer and closer to "the truth". 

Notice that I have equated "the truth" with greater complexity.  Some of you may wish to take issue with me on that.  You might want to argue that, in fact, there are simple principles that can explain seemingly complex phenomena.  This is certainly true.  But when you talk about the big picture, "life, the universe, and everything" as Douglas Adams would say.  The answer isn't 42!  Sure you may be able to use Newton's laws of motion to understand how objects move.  But what happens when they get close to the speed of light?  Then you need to consider relativity.  And what if the objects are very small, then you need to use quantum mechanics. And no one ever accused quantum mechanics of being simple. Sure, we use simplifying principles all the time, but the devil is in the details, and those details tend to be wickedly complex.

Let me propose an analogy that may help us to think about how education is a process of engaging greater and greater complexity. Think of  "reality", or "the truth", as an object you wish to see, but you can only view it by gathering bits of data that will eventually form a digital image.  But it takes time to gather the data, just like when you are online waiting for a picture to download.  Using this analogy, we can understand why the curriculum at Puget Sound involves two distinct features, a "major" and a "core", both of which students must complete before they graduate.  The "major" and the "core" curricula correspond to two distinct ways of getting pictures of "the truth". The "major" curriculum emphasizes depth and corresponds to getting a high resolution image of some small part of the picture. The "core" curriculum emphasizes breadth, that is getting a look at the whole picture, albeit at lower resolution.  Neither approach is inherently better than the other, it depends on what you hope to learn.

For example, consider the bird flu.  If you are a chemist you might decide to deal with this potential threat by learning more about influenza viruses in the hope that you can design an effective medical treatment. On the other hand, if you are a government official in charge of preparing for a potential epidemic of the bird flu you might want to have a broad understanding of the epidemiological, historical, social, psychological, and economic aspects of influenza epidemics so you can coordinate an effective response. 

If we go back to our digital picture analogy you will see that we have talked about the trade-off between having a broad picture at relatively low resolution, or a relatively limited picture at high resolution.  But the other parameter that we can change is the rate of data transmission.  If we go from a slow dial-up modem to a high-speed cable modem, we can improve our picture quality dramatically. I suppose this could correspond to people getting smarter.  But I don't think people are getting appreciably smarter.  I doubt if anyone today could outthink Isaac Newton or Leonardo da Vinci. 

No, I do not think that it is improvement in our intellect that is changing our ability to deal with complexity, it is the development and interconnectedness of modern computers. We are in the midst of a revolution as great as the development of the printing press, maybe as great as the development of writing itself. Probably everyone in this room has "googled" a topic to find more information.  Many of you are probably aware that the full text of many books are now searchable at amazon.com.  That is, in fact, how I found the exact Terry Pratchett quote that I used earlier.  I punched in a few words that I remembered from the book and the computer provided the exact quotation.  But it is precisely because the computer has become so commonplace that we may forget how revolutionary a development it represents.

Let me illustrate with an example of how the power and interconnectedness of computers is transforming the way we solve problems.  When I was a chemistry major at Whitman, if I wanted to do a thorough search of the chemical literature about a particular reaction I had to walk to the library, sit down in front of bookshelves full of volumes of Chemical Abstracts, laboriously search through indices to each of these volumes, write down in my notebook the citations for any articles that looked potentially useful, then go to the stacks of journals and look up the actual articles to see if I could find out whether the information I wanted was there or not.  This could take days, not to mention having a serious negative impact on my social life.  To make matters worse, organic chemists think about reactions in terms of structures, but there was no effective method for using structures to search for reactions.  Everything had to be translated into words.  It was like having to translate The Iliad into English.

Today I can sit at my computer, draw the structures of starting materials and products for a reaction and search a database for all known examples of that transformation. Then I can bring up the full text of the articles in which those reactions are described and skim them for any desired information.  If I find citations in the article I can bring up those papers also. This takes minutes.  It is as if I have everything that is known about chemistry in my brain.  Nearly as fast as I can formulate a question I can be looking at the answer or be reasonably sure that the answer isn't known.  I can sit down at my desk in the afternoon, investigate every example of a particular chemical reaction, and still be home in time for dinner. 

Maybe even more amazing is that my students can do this too.  It used to be that students had to rely on me to provide suggestions for how to make a particular molecule. Now I find them coming to me with suggestions that they've found by searching on the computer.

We started out talking about the observation that teachers don't always tell the truth, or at least not the whole truth.  In the limited time available the student might not be able to absorb the whole truth, so the teacher has to simplify.  But there is another possible reason why teachers might be unable to give you the truth, they might not know it themselves.  Eventually you come to the point where there is no one who knows the answer to some problem or question you have.  You have come to the end of teaching, but not to the end of learning.  You have reached the border between the known and unknown.  You are no longer a student, but rather an explorer.  This is the realm of research, unraveling complexities that no one has ever investigated.  Many of the students receiving awards today are already embarked on this exciting adventure.

So as our convocation awardees, along with their classmates, start exploring beyond what is known, what new complexities might they confront and embrace?  Looking into the future is a notoriously problematic occupation, but I have a couple examples of problems that they will probably help to solve.

Jim Brau from the University of Oregon physics department gave a seminar at UPS last year.  In that talk he explained that physicists can't find most of the mass of the universe, nor can they explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing. The physicists have postulated the existence of  "dark matter" and "dark energy" to account for this, but they don't know what those terms mean. Something is wrong with our current models of matter and the universe. Maybe superstring theory will sort all this out, but we don't know yet.  It certainly looks like we are headed toward another level of complexity!

Another area where the current generation of students will undoubtedly push into new levels of complexity is in the area of disease diagnosis and treatment.  The sequencing of "the human genome" was a triumph; but we know that there is not just one human genome. We all have our own unique human genomes. The ability to map each individual's unique genetic makeup will undoubtedly revolutionize medicine. Since everyone's genome is unique, a person's susceptibility to disease, or response to a drug, will be different from someone elses.  Thus, I expect that in the lifetime of the students at this convocation medical treatment will become tailored to each person's genetic makeup.

It is a grand human adventure to keep refining our picture of reality, confronting the next level of complexity and thereby increasing our understanding of the world.

So where has our tangent taken us today?  We started with the amusing observation that teachers don't actually tell us "the truth".  Then, after a stop in Professor Howells's literature class, we saw that the complexity of  "the truth" made it necessary for teachers to only expose us to a part of it.  By thinking of education as the construction of digital images of reality, we saw that the two pillars of Puget Sound's undergraduate curriculum, the "core" and the "major", correspond to two ways of confronting the complexity of reality -- through the "core" we focus on the complexity of the big picture, while the "major" zooms in to try to capture the detailed complexity of some small part.  We also noted that computers and their interconnectedness have dramatically increased our ability to construct images of reality.  Finally, we looked at a couple examples of the types of complexity that today's students might confront in their lifetimes.

I'd like to end by articulating two important implications that I think follow from a realization that "the truth" is complex, and that there is always more to learn.

The first has to do with the tendency of the modern media, and those that try to manipulate it, to use twenty-second sound bites to describe what is happening.  It seems that we are constantly barraged by simple, often one-sided, analyses that don't do justice to the complexities of the issues.  But, the world is complex and making reasonable choices about the important issues of our lives requires confronting that complexity, just as understanding The Iliad required confronting the complexities of the religion, culture, and history of the ancient Greeks.

The second important implication of realizing that understanding is never complete, that there are always more levels of complexity to be investigated, is that it is wise to maintain a sense of intellectual humility. A more detailed analysis of the complexities of a situation might change our conclusions. I don't want to suggest that we shouldn't have convictions about issues, just because we don't have the complete story doesn't mean that we aren't correct, but I believe that we would be better off if there was more respect and less dogmatism in our intellectual discourse.

But of course, it is probably more complicated than that….