The other side of complexity

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the hallmarks of childhood is an insatiable curiosity to learn. Children always want to find out all about their environment.

They often bombard parents with questions on everything from why the sky is blue, to the dreaded question, where do babies come from. Many a parent will tell you just how weary they are of their toddlers’ inquisitions.

However as we grow older, we begin to learn that it is considered impolite to ask questions. We learn that we should use our commonsense to figure out things for ourselves.

With time, we lose the ability to push the limits, to discover more of our immediate environment. Eventually, we lose the one thing that would be considered a spark of life-- the urge to know more, the feeling of curiosity.

Which is why, I have begun this week’s article with the quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and his quest to know what lies on the other side of complexity.

It is a feeling that was also shared by Albert Einstein when he said that he would love to know the mind of God. One thing that characterises great thinkers since time immemorial has been their curiosity.

Where would we be if Sir Isaac Newton hadn’t stared at a falling apple and struggled with the question as to why it fell? Where would we be if Christopher Columbus did not wonder what lay beyond the deep blue sea?

Of course, even as we discuss curiosity, there are those who will always hastily retort that curiosity killed the cat. Yes, it is important to channel curiosity appropriately, for example while doing a practical in a school lab or while studying the life patterns of other animals.

However, to remain curious is always better than to stay uncurious. To help a little, there is a poem that was written by Robert Frost.

In the poem, the first persona talks about taking the road less travelled. When we kindle our spirit of curiosity, especially in the academic environment, we have begun on the road less travelled.

Each of the greatest explorers of the world always begun on the road less travelled. As they continued on that road they found they made discoveries until they found some concept that has enriched our lives.

Partly responsible for some of those discoveries was a quality known as serendipity.

Serendipity is a big word that simply means discovering something new by accident. When we allow ourselves to be curious, we also allow room for discovery of other new things even when we were not in search of.

History abounds with examples of people who discovered things quite serendipitously. An example would be Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone. He said that he had tried ninety-nine different ways before he finally got it right.

Columbus’s undertaking of discovering the new world was done at one of the most repressive periods in Europe. A period when torture was common and public executions were the norm for any went contrary to the teachings of the church.

Many times Columbus had to appear before his local priests and monks to answer charges of heresy. At that time, one dared not be different!

When he set out to the New World, half way through the high seas he had to deal with a near mutiny. You see Columbus, under-reported the distance he had covered by at least 1,000 miles.

At a time when his entire crew were unanimous in wanting to go back to Spain, he soldiered on, promising to grant them their wish if they did not sight land in three days.

The relief that greeted shouts of “Tierra! Tierra!” (Spanish for earth) three days later, are now romanticised though lost in the sands of time. Still he discovered the new world and we are all the more indebted.

So, when you allow yourself to be curious, you should be ready to be chided or jeered at. The thing that would keep you going is the belief that everything that you do will benefit other people eventually.

In my column, I usually quote Albert Einstein quite liberally. He typically illustrates my point about being curious and wanting to discover. Yet, you will be surprised to learn that his Primary five teachers wrote him off as a child with no future.

It was Marianne Williamson who once said that
Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first, it is ridiculed. In the second, it is opposed. In the third, it is regarded as self-evident. So, if you feel in you the seeds of greatness, go ahead, rekindle the spirit of curiosity.

John Weru is the Principal, Virunga Communication Centre,