• Robb G. Best

Einstein, the Janitor, and Ockham's Razor

Throughout the ages, the enlightened among us have passed along many ideas that shape our lives. It is estimated that nearly 40% of all modern technology owes its success in some small part to Einstein’s notion that electromagnetic waves are the embodiment of moving photons. Quantum theory, as it’s called, is at the heart of everything from moon landings to iPhones.

In 1983, while working as a teacher, I came across another profound theory. One of my fellow staff members was a janitor named Dennis. He was a short, bushy-browed bulldog of a man who found most of his janitorial duties to be repugnant. On the less than rare occasion that a student might barf (euphemistically known as tossing one’s cookies), Dennis always made it a point to be conspicuously absent.

When there was manual labor to be performed, like moving a new boiler into the school, not only was Dennis available, but he made sure that every able-bodied male teacher was present as well. It was during such times that those of us conscripted into the army of Dennis to literally do the heavy lifting would wax philosophical on da Vinci’s theories of movement. After all, even the primitive ramp and roll theories employed by the pyramid builders dramatically lessened their burden.

As my fellow teachers stood around debating which mechanical theory to employ, Dennis would grow weary of the discussion. Sighing in disgust, he would squat down, grip the object in question (in this case the boiler) and, through action, make a case for the brute strength theory. The rest of us, seeing Dennis in the process of herniating himself, would rush to his aid, and the object in question (in this case the boiler) would be unceremoniously moved. Eventually around school, “to Dennis it” became a verb.

At first glimpse, this sounds a little like Ockham’s Razor. Not to be confused with Gillette’s Fusion Razor, which boldly posits that “shaving technology”, “25% larger Lubrastrip”, and “innovative microcomb” are all actual phrases that mean something. Ockham’s Razor stands in sharp contrast, suggesting whenever you’re constructing an explanation, you should go with the fewest assumptions and eliminate needless steps. Crudely put, the simplest explanation is the best.

The term was coined by Sir William Hamilton in 1852. Conveniently, 14th century logician and friar William Ockham was long dead, and thus not in a position to explain that he didn’t have much to do with his supposed Razor. It’s not a new idea. "We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible,” said Ptolemy around 1800 years ago. This concept is present in the works of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, as well as many rock stars of the 13th century scholarly world.

The simplest solution is the best. The fact is, there are times when the wisest among us must take a back seat to this basic law. The janitor understood that, while fancy theories are nice to have, when push comes to shove, sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves, grab the immoveable object before you, close your eyes, and simply Dennis it.


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