The ability to simplify means to eliminate
the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.
In today’s world of immediate and abundant information, it is easy to forget that geophysics is a specialized and complicated discipline that requires years of learning and understanding It combines the sciences of mathematics and physics with the art of geology. This unique combination of left and right brain functions, along with the enthusiasm common in our field, can lead to very detailed, elaborate, sophisticated, and sometimes contorted explanations. We too often feel it is important to explain every detail and every equation, right from the fundamentals of our science. But sadly we can be misunderstood or, worse, not heard. By failing to pass on some of the elegance and beauty of it, we fail our science. In our earliest math classes we learn to simplify. Fractions, algebraic equations, multiple equations, unknowns, and complicated word problems about trains and other physical features become more understandable and usable as we simplify them. Even matrix complexity can usually be reduced to very simple expressions. One of the first lessons I learned in the oil business was from a supervisor named Tim Williams. After I tried to explain the then-young concepts of AVO, he told me, ‘A lot of this technology isn’t worth a damn, if you can’t explain it simply.’ I set out at that point to force myself to simplify. Simplifying is not as easy as it sounds. You have to become quite involved in the science and mathematics of the process. You must fully comprehend and know the strengths, weaknesses, and assumptions of the process or theory, and then you have to break it into individual elements that are explainable through everyday occurrences or objects. One way to simplify an idea is with an analogy. Some of my favourite geoscience simplifications are:
- Slinky used to show P-wave and S-wave propagation
- Marshmallows and sugar cubes to explain Young’s modulus and Poisson’s ratio for ductile and brittle rocks.
- Making coffee to explain shale gas diffusion (credit is due to my colleague Basim Faraj for that one).
- Clear squirt gun filled with sand and water to demonstrate overpressure.
- Loud neighbours to explain acoustic attenuation.
When you simplify any theory, concept, or geologic process, you make your ideas easier to understand, more engaging, and more memorable, too.
Simplifying does not just apply to science or to math but relates to everything we do. Making our lives simpler has the same effect. Things become easier to understand and more believable. People relate to you better and more often turn to you for help, advice, and guidance. Some of the best leaders demonstrate this ability. The best way we can represent our science and ourselves is to simplify everything.
As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler;
solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty,
nor weakness weakness.
Henry David Thoreau