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WHEN A SIMPLE ANSWER WILL DO

January 25, 2014

A physics professor at a large university gave his class a one-question final exam. The question was: Explain how to determine the height of a skyscraper by using a simple barometer.

One particularly bright student responded:  There are three ways to determine the height of a skyscraper by using a simple barometer. The answer I believe you are looking for is to measure the barometric pressure at both the top and the bottom of the building.  The difference between the two measurements, assuming a uniform temperature, can be used to compute the height of the building by applying the appropriate equation.

A second way to determine the height of the skyscraper is to weigh the barometer. Drop it from the top of the building measuring how long it takes to hit the ground.  Using the equation for the acceleration of a falling object, and assuming negligible air resistance, the height of the building can be computed.

The student added, there is a third, much easier way, to determine the height of a skyscraper using a simple barometer. Go to the owner of the building and say, “Tell me how high your skyscraper is, and I’ll give you a neat barometer.”

The student made an A+ on the exam.

I made up a wise old saying that. “For every complex problem, there is a simple answer, and it is almost always wrong.” But, it is not always true. Sometimes a simple answer will do.

A family was traveling on Interstate 85 between Atlanta and Spartanburg.  Somewhere near the state line, a nine-year-old girl leaned across the seat and asked her mother, “Mama, where did I come from?”

It was the big birds-and-bees question the mother had been expecting. The mother, who had rehearsed her answer over and over, launched into her long answer.  She gave her child an anatomy lesson, detailing the human reproductive system.  Once the basic plumbing was discussed, she went into her dissertation on love and marriage, conception and childbirth. At the end of the long soliloquy, she asked, “Do you have any questions?”

“No, Mama! I mean did I come from Atlanta or Charlotte.”

Sometimes people ask for a bowl of cole slaw, and we give them a truckload of cabbage. Often a simple answer is better than a long explanation.  Military officers are taught to remember the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. KISS is important in every walk of life.

Three college professors arranged a fishing trip in the wilderness of Alaska. They looked forward to wading in pristine streams, casting for salmon.  They had engaged a fishing guide to lead their adventure. They flew from Anchorage to the riverside cabin where they were to meet their guide.  The plane made a smooth landing on the water and put them out on a dock near the cabin.  The temperature was cold, as expected.  Arriving at the cabin door, they knocked. No one answered. The smell of wood smoke from a fire inside the cabin beckoned.

The door swung open. They were astonished at the sight before them. The fire was in a wood-burning stove, but the stove was not on the floor. It was suspended with a network of steel wire halfway between the floor and the ceiling. The psychology professor spoke first, “We have hired a sick man to be our guide. Obviously he has a death wish. He has recklessly endangered himself.” The physics professor countered, “No, our guide is a brilliant man who understands thermodynamics. He has placed the heat source in the exact center of the cabin so that warmth is distributed evenly throughout.” “No,” said the religion professor, “this man is deeply devout, although primitive, in his religious beliefs. He has adopted the ancient concept of fire as a symbol of the divine and has elevated it to a place of importance.”

About that time the fishing guide entered the cabin. After a few pleasantries, one of the learned men asked, “Can you tell us why your wood stove is situated as it is.”

“Sure can,” said the guide. “I just had a whole lot of baling wire and not enough stove pipe.”

There are times when the simple answer will do.

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