The Beauty of Complexity

There are sometimes days like this, when the afternoon drags on interminably because nothing is going right at work, that I’m extremely glad I volunteer at The Tech.

This past Sunday was a perfect example of how volunteering ideally should work: a bunch of enthusiastic, science-obsessed people who are willing and able to explain the concepts behind exhibits to children, adults and grandparents do a great job, and people leave, better informed about the world around them. The enlightening thing about the whole experience, for me, is that complexity doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, it can be the best thing about the whole experience, done right.

Take our newest exhibit, the Reactables. It is — in my very unbiased opinion — one of the best things to have been installed at the Tech. It consists of a podium you can stand around, with an opaque tabletop where you can place a number of sensor-enabled cubes, blocks and disks in order to make music. Put one of the blocks down and a drum lines starts playing; place another one down and you can get a melody. One of the best parts of the whole thing is that the music is from five different regions of the world, color-coded for easy of comprehension, and putting them together in random fusionistic ways is incredibly fun.

That, in fact, is the simplest part of the whole process. After I’ve demonstrated this, I start showing visitors the small squares, which are the individual instruments. Put down a piano or guitar or drum piece, and you’ll play one note. I show them how boring that is; then I bring out the controllers.

There are a pretty good variety of these — you can play around with the frequency of the note played, change the intervals at which notes are produced, or create a combination of effects. It sounds rather pedantic when put this way, but even the most beautiful of music is an arrangement of notes, a fusion of frequencies. As the pieces pile up on the table, strange, eerie, irresistible pieces of music start catching the ear of passers-by, and pretty soon there’s an audience looking on while you demonstrate.

I show the more entranced ones the subtleties of the exhibit — the fact that no matter when you put down a cube, the rhythm of the music or the beat of the drums always sync up; the fact that when you move blocks around on the table, the sound realigns to arrive through the speaker nearest that piece. It’s not simply about the science — it’s about the experience of the exhibit itself.

To me, Reactables is a perfect fusion of science and art. Music is as ubiquitous as it ever was, but now the difference is, everything is digitized and available through a dizzying array of media. These are sounds first made through stretching animal skins over wood, or blowing through a reed with holes gouged out, and we’ve gotten to the point where we can accurately and electronically break them down and re-synthesize them. On the other hand, think about it this way: it takes a lot of non-linear thinking and creativity to come up with a musical piece from melodies and rhythms that are digitally stripped of all context.

Either way, it’s wonderful to see people embracing the complexity of the endeavor and trying to experiment with the pieces. Not all of them do, of course, but I believe we underestimate our own intelligence and our capacity to create. I honestly think that, while trying to communicate science to the general public, we should err on the side of too many details  rather than too few. This, of course, is determined by more prosaic things like word counts and deadlines and unsympathetic editors, but nevertheless — the point is, I think we’re all wired to want to learn. The great challenge of science writing, to me, is taking advantage of that in the general populace.

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