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Toys and teaching semplifying complexity

Toys and teaching: simplifying complexity

If there were a device that measured enthusiasm, Arvind Gupta, an Indian pioneer in science teaching and toy inventor, would probably break it. On the other hand, Gupta would doubtless be able to make a new one to replace it.

In conferences and YouTube presentations, Gupta nimbly conjures up teaching materials from objects habitually thrown away. Using only matchsticks and bicycle tire inner tubes, Gupta builds squares, triangles and more exotic shapes, often switching from one to another with a simple flick of the fingers, to show the role that different shapes play in real-life engineering. If a square is easily compressed by the hand, squares won’t be much good at bearing up under traffic if used as the base of a bridge. The apex of a matchstick triangle, on the other hand, can’t easily be pushed down.

Gupta also demonstrates how rubbing a wooden stick along a pencil with grooves cut into it and another small stick attached to the end turns the device into a revolving fan that illustrates the laws of motion. This is a child’s first lesson in physics.

It was this contraption, sometimes known exotically as a “gee haw whimmy diddle,” that fascinated Richard Feynman as a young child growing up in New York in the 1920s. Feynman went on to become one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, winning the Nobel Prize in 1965.

A great virtue of Gupta’s devices is that they can be made for nothing. For this reason, toys inspired by Gupta and other ingenious inventors have been used to educate millions of children in developing countries, including India.

As adults, we can learn a great deal about how to approach intellectual problems by seeing how useful toys are to children. You shouldn’t explain to a child how a bridge works by drawing intimidating diagrams and writing equations. You should begin with matchsticks and rubber. If the child’s curiosity is piqued, in future years they may well want to understand the complicated physics behind the structure.

The lesson for investment managers: the best way of understanding complex problems is often to start with something simple.

The same principles of simplicity can be applied to every field, including finance, investment and politics. There’s a lesson for investment managers here: the best way of understanding complex problems is often to start with something simple.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, dubbed “the secretary of explaining stuff” by the current president, Barack Obama, for his defense of quite complex Democratic economic policies in the language of Joe Public, is a case in point. The Republicans have also had their great communicators, including Ronald Reagan.

Let life be a game, with fun props, fun explanations and a spirit of playfulness.

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