When theories get too complex, scientists reach for Ockham’s Razor, the principle of parsimony, to do the trimming. This principle says that a theory that postulates fewer entities, processes or causes is better than a theory that postulates more, so long as the simpler theory is compatible with what we observe. But what does ‘better’ mean? It is obvious that simple theories can be beautiful and easy to understand, remember and test. The hard problem is to explain why the fact that one theory is simpler than another tells you anything about the way the world is.
Jimmy MacDonald, a trained hydrologist and guide who had delivered a talk to the passengers on the science of sea-ice formation the day before, aimed his shotgun at the water off the stern and unloaded five shots in quick, rhythmic succession: BANG, snick-snick, BANG, snick-snick, BANG, snick-snick, BANG, snick-snick, BANG. The ocean swallowed each slug within seconds, the expanding ripples erased by the waves.
If live-fire target practice isn’t quite what you’d expect on board a cruise ship under sail, that’s fitting — Canada’s Arctic waters are not your usual tourist destination. But a growing number of small cruise ships are heading to the region each year, and the Northwest Passage — the fabled waterway that for centuries claimed hundreds of explorers’ lives — is an especially powerful draw.
Julian Barnes makes this traumatic event central to his fictionalized portrait of Shostakovich in his ambitious but claustrophobic new novel, “The Noise of Time.” It’s a book that attempts to turn the composer’s complex relationship with the Soviet authorities into an Orwellian allegory about the plight of artists in totalitarian societies — and a Kafkaesque parable about a fearful man’s efforts to wrestle with a surreal reality, even as he questions his complicity with the system.