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Oct 23 2002

Lessons Learned from Murray Gell-Mann

Published by at 11:03 am under Complexity Catastrophe,VistA

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“We need to overcome the idea, so prevalent in both academic and bureaucratic circles, that the only work worth taking seriously is highly detailed research in a specialty. We need to celebrate the equally vital contribution of those who dare to take what I call ?a crude look at the whole.? Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, in The Quark and the Jaguar, Adventures in the Simple and the Complex p. xiv.


President Clinton, in his January, 2000 State of the Union speech, said that Americans, based on their genetic sequences, were 99.9% the same. Had he chosen to use amino acids as the yardstick of similarity, he could have claimed 100%, with all species of life. Had he chosen the atomic elements, he could have linked us and everything on earth to the same supernova that happened billions of years ago. Had he chosen protons and electrons, he could have linked us with the entire cosmos and the same big bang.

Had he chosen hair color as the yardstick of similarity of Americans, our similarity ranking may have dropped to the low teens. Had he chosen fingerprint patterns, he could have made the case for 100% uniqueness.

The same thing viewed with different yardsticks reflect wildly different comparisons.

So, from the mystic who sees unity in everything (What did the mystic say to the hotdog vendor? “Make me one with everything”), to the FBI fingerprint analyst who sees everyone as a unique individual, our yardsticks determine what we see.

I think it is important that we understand the significance of our yardsticks. It would be senseless for the mystic and the FBI fingerprint technician to argue about whether people are unique or “one” – they both are right, using their own yardsticks.

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