MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIE TY FOR SCIENCE & THE PUBLIC MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIETY FOR SCIENCE & THE PUBLIC
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Seeking subtle simplicity
in science’s complexities
Science is all about finding simplicity
amid subtleties and complexities.
It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise it
would be hopeless to try to understand
the brain. No realm of nature exhibits
more complexity, and in no realm do
accurate explanations require more sub-
tlety. That’s especially the case when the
brain malfunctions. It’s hard enough to explain how the brain
works when it’s working properly. When things go awry, the
subtleties and complexities are magnified.
Efforts to understand autism spectrum disorder, for example, have met with bewildering evidence from genetics studies. Autism and its related afflictions clearly reflect genetic
problems — perhaps 90 percent of all cases have at least some
genetic component. Yet no single gene or small set of genes
appears to be responsible for a substantial fraction of those
cases. Dozens or even hundreds of rare genetic variants seem
to contribute to the disorder, as contributing correspondent
Susan Gaidos notes in this issue (Page 18). Autism must be the
product of some elaborate neurological complexity.
But identifying subtleties in autistic brains can help scientists perceive underlying simplicity. While many genes are
involved, they may exert their influence in similar ways. In
fact, certain neural circuits and processes seem especially
relevant to autism’s symptoms. Proteins produced from the
numerous suspect genes may converge in just a few brain networks, and that may someday enable a picture of autism to
emerge that is simple enough to suggest effective treatments.
Of course, science must also deal with other complexities:
the multiplicity of life-forms in the oceans, for example. Progress in a census of marine life (visually summarized in this
issue with descriptions by Susan Milius, Page 22) will help scientists discern subtle features of oceanic biology. And modern
theories have added new layers of complexity to the universe
itself — in the form of countless siblings to the single spacetime
bubble that humans occupy. It will be easier to find simpler
explanations of such a complicated cosmos, perhaps, if subtle
features in strange substances known as metamaterials can be
studied in the lab, as Elizabeth Quill notes (Page 28).
All in all, there’s no avoiding the complexity of the world.
But illuminating the subtleties that reveal simplicity can
help humans navigate through that complexity more safely.
Science is the only reliable way of doing that.
—Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief
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