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In the arts as well, simplicity and complexity may masquerade as each other. Two years ago, physicist Richard Taylor of the University of Oregon began trying to establish the authenticity of six possible Jackson Pollock paintings. Taylor ultimately determined that the paintings were done by someone else, not because the materials or colors were wrong but because they lacked the microscopic fractals--repetitive patterns within patterns--that defined Pollock's abstractions. Fractals were a well-known concept in mathematics, but nobody expected to find them in a free-form splatter painting. Something in the way Pollock tossed his paint, however, allowed him not only to create fractals but also to manipulate them so that they landed only on the canvas. The floor around them? Just splatters.
The ability to balance on the simplicity-complexity fulcrum is producing results elsewhere too--in increasingly complex software that yields increasingly intuitive user interfaces (think the iPhone); in algorithms that show how the movements of schooling fish mirror the behavior of investors, making stock-market predictions more reliable. Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize--winning physicist and a co-founder of SFI, likes to cite the case of physicist Karl Jansky, who founded the science of radio astronomy in 1931 when he was studying the hiss of electromagnetic static that bathes the Earth--part of the same hiss you hear on a car radio. Jansky realized that the sound was caused not by atmospheric disturbances but by ancient signals streaming to us from the very center of the galaxy. What everyone else heard as noise, Gell-Mann says, Jansky heard as a "beautiful regularity." Slowly, we're all learning to listen the same way.