Author Talk: Exploring Simplexity with Jeffrey Kluger

You might think that it must have been a great pressure on me to interview Jeffrey Kluger, who is an expert on interviews himself. It was. And it wasn’t. I simply accepted the fact that I am interviewing an editor-at-large at a magazine with a very large circulation and if anything went wrong, well, that would be just as expected. When I met Jeffrey, I saw a very meticulous, observant guy in him who was not just aware of these circumstances, but also actively helped ease our communication. In addition, he is a senior editor and writer at TIME magazine and the author of 9 books, including Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (And How Complex Can Be Made Simple).

Jeffrey held this year’s opening talk at the TEDxVienna conference. Having written a whole book about simplexity (which he originally wanted to name “Praise the Guppy” after being inspired by the sophisticated nature of a guppy fish), he helped us understand how the simple and the complex often go hand-in-hand, leaving little to no room for dissonance. For me, simplexity is this beautiful tango between complexity and simplicity – absolutely connected, exchanging energies, and the more you explore the embeddedness between the two, the closer you are to making some confusion-eradicating discoveries. Despite my romanticizing of the topic, the term is rather neutral: Simplexity is about life where the good, the bad and the ugly merge into each other. I had the chance to have a little chat with Jeffrey to find out more about the guy who chose to go after the simplexities of life. We talked about himself, about simplexity, and why “Praise The Guppy” may not be the best book title in history.

Jeffrey Kluger: I really wanted to call the book “Praise the Guppy” because I find it surprising and funny. I thought it’d make a beautiful cover of a book – just a white book with a glamour picture of a guppy. I really find that guppy are very beautiful fish. My agent, Joy Harris – she is the only agent I’ve ever had and the only agent I’ve ever want – she was the one who said to me we’ve got to think about marketing and your book will be in the pets section and on the ethology shelves of every bookstore in the world, you’ve got to come up with a different name. She was the one who came up with simplexity and I said “That is perfect!”. I’m sure the word has been out there a little bit, but I think we helped turbo-charge it. It has now gone wide and it is nice to have that word out there.

“Were you familiar with the simplexity theory before writing the book?”

Jeffrey Kluger: Yes, I was. It was actually the idea of the guppy that first got me thinking. I was working for a science magazine way back in the late 98s and I was looking into one of the aquariums in my house and I saw a little fish and I thought about that idea – the difference between a star and a little fish. On the one hand, one is grand and the other one is tiny. On the other hand, one is infinitely more complex and the other quite simple and vulgar. And the idea “systems complexity” interested me. I didn’t think of looking into a book on that until about 2005 and as I started looking into it, a friend of mine, another science writer I worked with for many years, pointed out to me that there is the Santa Fe Institute, a beautiful facility and a think-tank with amazing scientists in a beautiful part of the United States, that studies complexity and simplexity. I went out there and visited it. It is co-founded by Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Laureate, and I spent a few days there learning about the hard science of complexity, simplicity and simplexity. Then I did more research, reporting and reading over the year that followed and I got immersed in it. In some ways it changed and refracted my thinking, because it has helped me look at problems as either things that seemed scary and intimidating but actually very simple to solve if you take a certain approach, or things that look very simple, but better be careful – they can be much more complex than they may seem.

“How did you decide what to include in the book?”

Jeffrey Kluger: I wanted to cover a wide range of things, first of all. So I covered economics, I covered politics, I covered sports, I covered the arts. One of my favorite chapters in the book was on language and language acquisition. I really thought that was just going to be a small chapter about cognition, but then I started digging into it, and God, I love the topic of language, how people learn languages, how babies learn languages… so that became an entire chapter in the book. Emergency evacuations. This was just a few years post 9/11 and that became a big chapter in the book. Something about scaling which I had never really thought about before fascinated me – the idea that patterns recapitulate themselves. So if you look at the capillaries in your body, they are very much like – in terms of how they work – the plumbing in your house, which is very much like railroad lines, which is very much like roadways.

Jeffrey KlugerWhen I’m flying over a city at night sometimes, the city is just sort of a splatter of light with all of these chemtrails coming from it, which are highways leading to other cities, and they look very much like astrocytes – early brain cells that reach out to other cells – and in some ways that’s because they function the same way. They are carrying information, they are carrying data there, they are carrying people in real life, carrying information in the brain. That’s questions of scaling. I found that topic really fascinating.

“What makes the theory attractive to you?”

Jeffrey Kluger: I just think the idea draws us into seeing the world in different ways, and also I think it helps us avert mistakes in some ways. An obvious example: The politics chapter in the book was called “How does a single bullet start a world war?”, and of course that was about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and how that led to World War One and everything that followed. There was a lot in there about that – about small actions having huge and sometimes devastating consequences. On the other hand, small actions can have sometimes huge and magnificent consequences. Just before I wrote “Simplexity”, I wrote a book about Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine. Salk had wanted to be a lawyer. He went to undergraduate school. He was studying pre-law and all the other things that were necessary to be a lawyer, but as a brand new student he also had to take certain requirements. The idea of requirements is smart. You think you want to be a painter, then you go to school and are required to take a calculus class. You think “God! That was fascinating! I’m going to be a mathematician!”. And so Jonas Salk thought he wanted to be a lawyer, and he was required to take one chemistry class. He thought: “That was fun! I enjoyed that!”. Flash-forward 20 years, there is a polio vaccine, polio was in many respects effectively eradicated and it was all because somebody said: “You, young Jonas, go to this class”. And in that little hinge moment, history changed. It gives us a sense of how the right moment, the right idea, the right person, in the right circumstance can change the world, or the wrong person, wrong moment, wrong circumstance can do sweeping damage.

“What did you want to convey to your readers by writing the book?”

Jeffrey Kluger: I want people to come away with the idea that what you think you see is not what necessarily is, and that you can make use of that fact! In that simple thing, figure out the complex richness of it and understand it. One of the most complex things the United States ever did was putting men on the Moon. We haven’t been able to get back there and we are still talking about going to Mars. It’s going to be even harder. And yet you want to know what kernel of simplicity is in there? The kernel of simplicity is President Kennedy in 1962, he spoke millions of words and speeches in his life, but the most powerful to my mind was a single verb, in a single sentence, in a single speech in 1962 and he said: “We choose to go to the Moon”. Choose. Right there. He framed it as this is within our control. You guys want to put boots on the Moon? Choose to put boots on the Moon. We chose, and seven years later we had boots on the Moon.Simplexity People say that there is so much political conflict now in Washington, there is not enough money. How we are going to get back to the Moon? How we are going to get to Mars? You know how? Choose. Just choose to do it. Jonas Salk chose to eradicate polio, to develop the polio vaccine. It took him a long time, but he was able to do it. New York chose to recover from the 9/11 attacks and built a tower that is even bigger and more beautiful than the ones that were destroyed. We chose to recover, we chose to say “We will not let this stand”. There is going to be a mess, there is going to be a bleeding for a long time, but we will stand up from what just happened. So I think sometimes looking at the giant and looking at the one tiny kernel of insight, of truth, of science or spirit, whatever it is that animates that. That, I think is the most take-away message perhaps.


Image credits to Gavin Gough

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About Zeynep Ercan

Coming from the city where two continents meet, Zeynep has a passion for bridging cultures. As a social and cultural anthropology student she is looking for ways to understand the world around her better (and hopes to leave it a better place).

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