We underestimate simplicity

I watched a documentary the other day, about a stealth-plane developed by the Germans towards the end of the second world war. The plane was an answer to the British radar system, which gave the Brits an early warning when the German bombers came to attack airports and cities like London. The plane was stealth much because it was built of wood and painted with radar wave absorbing paint.

What struck me was; we tend to believe we are so far advanced that we can’t discover new things in the simple. Wood is simple.

Perhaps you’ve read the quote by former Chairman of IBM who allegedly said “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” (Thomas J. Watson, 1945), or maybe you’ve laughed at some of these statements:

  • “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — New York Times, 1936.
  • Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” — Dr Dionysys Larder (1793-1859), professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy, University College London.
  • X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” — Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1883.

Today we look at these statements and laugh to ourselves, saying “people were stupid then, but now we know better.” Or are we? The things of it is: We have a tendency to become overly self confident about our own understanding and level of knowledge. We think we are at the top of humanly achievable knowledge and understanding.

I believe Thomas A. Edison was correct when he said: “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.” Let me show you an example: Graphene. This super material is bascially a 2D structure of carbon, yeah, a one atom thick sheet of carbon, and it has enormous potential in areas we are continually discovering. One will most likely be the tinyest transitors you’ve seen this far, or what about the strongest material ever made? Graphene has tremendous potential, and for that reason nations are investing billions as we speak.

How did we ever find a way to create graphene? You might think it was a complicated process that involved the best brains in the world? Well, it was discovered using regular adhesive tape. Russian physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov and the lead from pencils. Six years later, they won the Nobel Prize for their work.

So my plead is:

  • Don’t overlook the genious of simplicity.
  • Don’t stick with status quo.
  • Don’t be arrogant about your knowledge or insight

Or people might laugh at your alleged truths in the future.