Simplicity in Innovation: A Millionaire Scientist Shaves with Occam’s Razor

InSuperfreakonomics, Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s best-selling sequel to their 2005 hitFreakonomics, they write of an individual “so polymathic as to make an everyday polymath tremble with shame.” That individual is Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft who is a scientist, award-winning photographer, rare-book aficionado, and dinosaur bone collector, among other things. Myhrvold went to college at age fourteen and then continued on with multiple bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in physics and mathematics, doing a little research in cosmology with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge along the way. After retiring from Microsoft with a nine figure salary, he branched out with fellow Microsoft colleague Edward Jung to create Intellectual Ventures (IV), a firm whose company tagline is “investing in invention.”

One of the many secrets of Myhrvold’s and IV’s success: simplicity. Declaring that all solutions should be cheap and simple, Myhrvold and IV have taken on stripping down the world’s problems to bare-bones solutions, whether it’s the “garden hose to the sky” idea to mitigate atmospheric warming or controlling the ocean’s temperatures using giant floating contraptions built from car tires. Where the concept of Occam’s razor states that reducibly simpler solutions are likely to exist preferentially relative to complex ones, IV has its own razor sharpened and at the ready.

As engineers, it can often be disheartening, feeling like U.S. Patent Commissioner Charles Duell when he declared in the late 1800s, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” But modern engineers have a reason to hold hope high. In the glow of our crackling torches of ideation and insight, engineers of the modern era still invent with the advantage that simplicity is alive and well.

The simplicity of potential solutions is paired with the simplicity in exploring new knowledge from which to innovate. Accessible tools like Google are the modern sibyls, and you don’t even need to trek into an ancient, dusty Greek cave to glean from their knowledge (unless the cave has wireless, of course.) Not that the Internet is a repository of absolute truths, but the point is that information is more accessible, or rather, more simply accessible, than it ever has been. Engineering education and experience are the joint tools of discernment, precise rudders by which we navigate new ideas and blaze trails of new progress. When facing our daily engineering challenges, simplicity may just be among the more efficient (albeit easily neglected) tools at our disposal in our aspirations towards technical and quantitative mastery.

An engineer today might just be a modern day incarnation of Sweeney Todd, innovating to serve society and to promote the advancement of technology in a reducibly sharp (and simple) way, inviting Complexity to take a seat in that barber’s chair.

Eloquence and innovation do not always have to coincide with intricacy.

Just keep that shaving gel handy.

Published November 9, 2009 by Austin Lin

Filed under: invention, innovation,

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.