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neutrinos, science, and computer programming

17th October 2011

As the newspapers and online journals have revealed this week, the tricky question of whether neutrinos travelled faster than light speed in between CERN and Gran Sasso has now been solved.

Occam's razor is the guiding principle here; the rule that when trying to decide why something works the way it does, the simplest answer (i.e. the one that makes fewer new assumptions) is usually the right one. In this case the assumption that the neutrinos were travelling faster than light was an unusual new assumption - the only problem was finding the simpler explanation, which of course turned out to be hidden for 2-3 weeks until some bright spark discovered that the satellites measuring the location of the neutrinos were to blame.

Computer systems are less subject to Occam's razor than nature, simply because their complex programming is created by human beings who often work at cross-purposes to the end users, but in a well tested and 'seasoned' system, where a fault develops, it's often the data that's to blame rather than a bug in the system - a perfect example of Occam's razor hard at work.

As computer programmers we're constantly constructing systems and rules, and here, if we're good at our jobs, we will work on the other side of the equation, building the simplest possible solution to a problem rather than a more complex one that's more likely to cause problems when changed.  


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