On the Sum of Parts I

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


As a scientist, I am always tempted to categorize things so that I can make sense of them. Put them into relation with all else, see what fits together, and what the oddballs may be. To do this, I often reduce a complex system into discrete parts, describe key attributes of each one, and then define rules of how each of these parts relates to the other. This can be done using mathematical language and creating algorithms, and my engineering self is always trying to use this information to understand how things work, predict future outcomes, and perhaps extrapolate these rules to other systems that seem to bear no relation, but follow the same structure. Look at many fields outside of engineering, and you will see this framework of thinking applied to areas as diverse as marketing, economics, societal classes, art, and medicine. It seems to be a feature of human nature.

Often, this is very successful. How many times are you scrolling through your social media feed of choice, and ads pop up that seem to be tailor made to your tastes? Suggested groups or friends to add to your network? Sometimes the suggestion seems odd, but when you look a bit more into it, you realize that the suggestion was eerily spot on. How do they know that? An interesting article I once read about social media research stated that your pattern of “likes” could predict many features of who you are, such as your gender, intelligence, geographical location, your age, your marital status, your value system, and controversial in today’s climate–your political leanings (Google “Cambridge Analytica” if you are interested. Fascinating stuff). The biggest surprise for me after reading that article was how few likes had to be collected on an individual before the algorithm was fairly successful in its predictive value-150 likes! Of course, I followed the embedded link in the article to test it out with their “quiz” to see how accurate this boast was (okay, a n=1, but still!). And yep, it was spot on for the most part (the funniest thing was my intelligence was predicted to be lower than average…but the average for the test was not revealed, so perhaps a bunch of really smart nerds also took the test). Think about how many times you mindlessly click on a meme or an article in your newsfeed, and you’ll see how quickly your tastes, wants, needs, and values are revealed, captured, and leveraged. Now, I do not think any of this is inherently bad. As most things, it’s how we use knowledge and power that results in what we think of as “good” or “bad.”

The most interesting thing to me is when we go through the exercise of creating these sometimes elaborate rules only to find that they don’t always work. I think one of the most depressing and empowering days in my engineering education was in my Mass Transport class. We were working on hydrodynamics and discussing laminar versus non-laminar flow. The Navier-Stokes equation was being taught, and there were these variables in front of each of the terms known as “numbers” or ratios of properties of the system, such as the Reynolds number that describes the relation of inertial to viscous forces. It seemed in chemical engineering there were a ton of these “dimensionless numbers” that were important to me to learn. I asked a professor, if we knew so much about the fundamentals of physics, thermodynamics, etc. why were these numbers there? He said, they’re fudge factors that incorporate a grey area in our lack of knowledge, but still allow us to describe and make predictions between a micro and macroscale world and transitions between two behaviors in a system. And when they don’t work, tell us we need to do more to understand what is going on.

Whoa. Mind blown. Here I was studying engineering partly because I thought it was a powerful tool that could give me any answer, and here I was told we fudge it! What the hell? Betrayal! (Now, don’t let this decrease your trust in engineering or science. Although it may be imperfect in some ways, I firmly believe it is one of the best tools we have to understand the universe and often spot on. Also, I am oversimplifying some of this.). This was the start of learning humility as a scientist and engineer. But more importantly, it opened my eyes to the systems which we try to describe that cannot be reduced to a few variables and rules, not because we don’t clearly understand the system, but because in some cases, 1 + 1 = 3. Synergy.

Synergy is to me an intangible feature of the universe that underlies many of our greatest creations. In my life, this has manifested itself in many ways. More than once, it has been working with individuals on a team that just seems to put out more than put in. One can just feel the energy flowing like a pinball ball bouncing back and forth and gathering momentum before being slung out into the ether. Sometimes, it’s the friend with whom you get together and just seem to have the best time even though you do nothing of importance. And then there is the personal synergy we each experience, where we are all uniquely more than the sum of just one of our talents, passions, or skills. Often times we identify with being this or that, try to be the best at this or that, and we forget that we are not just this or that, but infinite things that include our past, our today, and our future. Our strengths and weaknesses. Our wants and needs. How we assemble those parts of us is often more critical than each one in isolation. For when we find that unique combination of what makes us us, that balance in each situation that combines into greater than the sum of what we think of as our individual parts, we find that we become so much more than we believed we could be. And that I think is as close to our true potential as we can reach.

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