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‘Simplexity’ explains the methods to the madness

by Sandee Brawarsky

July 16, 2008 | 9:57 pm

A handshake might seem to be a simple, even thoughtless social exchange. But behind the meeting of hands are a lot of neural firings, tactile feedback, control of muscles, depth perception; it's a ritual that grows out of a long tradition of greetings and social cues.

In his thought-provoking new book, "Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)" (Hyperion), Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine senior editor and writer, refracts perceptions of how the world works -- and how to make things better -- through the prism of complexity science.

As he explained in an interview, people tend to mistake size for complexity and subtlety for simplicity and often miss seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. He reports in part on the pioneering work of the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank and research center dedicated to the study of complexity led by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

Kluger's literary agent helped him coin the book's title, an apt new word for the overlap and interface between simplicity and complexity. They later learned that the name has also been used by companies.

"Simplexity" joins a growing genre of nonfiction books that bridge science, psychology and economics to look at the science of decision making that make economics sexy, as a Time magazine correspondent has said. Also dubbed chic-onomics, the titles include Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational," Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and "Blink," and Stephen Dubner's and Stephen Levitt's "Freakonomics."

The inspiration for this book came several years ago, when the author was staring at a fish tank in his apartment. As he writes in the book's prologue, "We grow hushed at, say, a star, and we shrug at, say, a guppy. And why not? A guppy is cheap, fungible, eminently disposable, a barely conscious clump of proteins that coalesce into a bigger clump."

For Kluger, the guppy is where the magic lies. It's a "symphony of systems -- circulatory, skeletal, optical, neurological, hematological, metabolic, auditory, respiratory, olfactory, enzymatic, reproductive, biomechanical, behavioral, social. Its systems are assembled from cells; its cells have subsystems; the subsystems have subsystems."

Similarly, as he explains, a house plant may be more complex than a manufacturing plant.

Writing "Simplexity" changed the way Kluger looks at just about everything. Many of the chapters grew out of issues he covered for Time, including language acquisition, emergency evacuation and health care. He also writes here about the arts, the stock market and the onset of wars. As a writer, he's particularly skilled in making complex ideas accessible.

Kluger explains that a generation ago, chaos theory was a paradigm-shifting hypothesis about the power of disorder. He believes that a new understanding of how things that are complex are actually simple and vice versa is similarly causing a shift in scientific thinking.

He quotes Chris Wood, a neuroscientist at the Santa Fe Institute, "Ask me why I forgot my keys this morning, and the answer might be simply that my mind was on something else. Ask me about the calcium channels in my brain that drive remembering or forgetting, and you're asking a much harder question."

Through many intriguing anecdotes, Kluger demonstrates predictable patterns of human behavior, addressing questions like why it takes so long for a crowd to leave a burning building, how institutions can be similar to a series of nested dolls within dolls, why people aren't very good at distinguishing between risks likely to kill them from those that are statistical longshots and why a baby is likely to be the best linguist in the room.

In his chapter on global health concerns, titled "Why Are Only 10 Percent of the World's Medical Resources Used to Treat 90 Percent of Its Ills?" he discusses the effectiveness of many low-cost microsolutions to battling global poverty and disease that are not at all complicated, as governmental agencies might believe.

Kluger emphasizes the importance of teaching behavioral skills on the local level, creating distribution networks for delivery of existing cures or vaccines and establishing micocredit banking institutions to get money directly to the people who need it most.

With the wisdom of flexibility, precision and planning, positive change is truly possible. He mentions an international foundation that bought new and used ambulances, refrigerated trucks and motorcycles for local health agencies in Africa, creating a motorized medical fleet -- where none had existed before -- servicing great stretches of several countries; they have slashed mortality rates for certain diseases.

"Our deep sense that this is an effort we not only could be making but should be making comes from a place that might, ultimately, be one of the most uncomplicated parts of us: our simple sense of compassion," he writes.

Kluger doesn't cover religion but notes that a consideration of the topic might have been an additional chapter in the book.

"Religion is exceedingly complicated as long as it is not used blindly, not as a simple, rigid adherence to doctrine," he says. "Fanaticism is very simple. No matter how long the text, the fact is if you take it literally, you don't bring anything to the party."

"The U.S. Constitution is a marvel of economy. But in 200 years of Supreme Court decisions, simplicity allows for complexity," he says, pointing out that the Talmud is similarly simple and complex.

Kluger, 54, who covers science and social issues, is the author of several books, including "Apollo 13," written with astronaut Jim Lovell, upon which the 1995 movie was based; "Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio"; and a novel for young adults, "Nacky Patcher and the Curse of the Dry-Land Boats."

Writing is a Kluger family tradition. He has Pulitzer Prize winners on both sides of the family: the historian and journalist Richard Kluger is an uncle, and poet Karl Shapiro is a cousin. His three brothers are also writers.

While he has been covering science for Time for many years, Kluger humbly claims that he is unqualified. His own training is in law, although he hasn't practiced as an attorney.

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