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The Mona Lisa Code

2011 July 10

Everybody knows the Mona Lisa.  She’s iconic; as much of a symbol of art as art itself. Housed in Paris but reproduced everywhere, there is probably nothing else on earth that so thoroughly fuses the ridiculous and the sublime as the Mona Lisa.
We usually view her in simulated form, but, when seen at the Louvre, up close and in person, she takes on a completely new significance.  It seems as if every brushstroke is infused with essence and meaning.
The centuries old masterpiece and the digitized (and often satirized) versions stand side by side in our minds eye.  The digital Mona Lisa, of course, is not made up of brushstrokes, but code and, as we shall see, that makes all the difference.

The Value of Complexity

Complexity is something we usually admire (except, of course, in our significant others). What’s striking about the original Mona Lisa is the intricate detail that makes it a unique work of art.  It is that complexity of detail that never makes it into the more widely dispersed verions.

Mathematicians value complexity so much that they have gone to great lengths to define it with a concept called Kolmogorov-Chaitin complexity.  Most numbers, even big ones like 1,000,000 easy to simplify it (i.e. 106).  Others, like 987,654,321 lend themselves to easy memorization

Some numbers are more difficult.   For instance 6,461,333,267 is not only a large number but it is also a prime.  There is no way to explain it except by repeating all ten digits in sequence. It is unique and difficult to describe accurately, much like the Mona Lisa.

That’s the essence of complexity. There’s no way to easily simplify it without losing information.

If you want to contain information, complexity is a valuable thing.  Your credit card company uses the complexity of prime numbers to protect you by encrypting information.  Governments use complex codes to keep secrets.  Complexity both preserves meaning and keeps information from wandering off.

The Paradoxical Charms of Simplicity

Simplicity is, of course, the opposite of complexity.  Simple information is easy to transmit and share, which makes simple things more popular than complex things.

We often add information to simple messages to ensure that they get through. Our everyday language is filled with redundancy to help insure that messages are passed on accurately, but in truth, we don’t need all the letters that we use.

For instance: vwls rn’t rlly ncssry.

Simplifying by omitting superfluous information has become an intrinsic part of modern life.  Transmissions of sound and video are sampled in order to compress them, making them easier to disseminate widely.  The computer on the other end will be able to get the gist of the message and then use established algorithms to fill in the blanks.

Information is inevitably lost in compression and transmission which is why the original Mona Lisa is so different from the ones we often see.  Those that broadcast media struggle to transmit complex signals in the simplest way possible in order to save bandwidth, getting their messages more widely disseminated, but sacrificing signal quality.

Popularity has a price.

Encoding Logic and Meaning

Codes are important because our lives are, to a great extent, quests for logic and meaning. We try to make sense of a complicated universe through simplified models that rely on context to aid interpretation.  This can be problematic though.  Common discourse is fraught with paradoxes that throw codes into disarray.

A famous example is called Russell’s paradox, which can be represented by the simple statement: : “The barber of Siberia shaves everybody who does not shave themselves.” These kinds of contradictions (in this case, sets that are members of themselves) lead to logical circles that cause codes to fail and computer systems to crash.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead tried to solve the problem of paradoxes in their classic work Principia Mathematica.  In it they set out rules for restating language into a logical code, which would do away with such inconsistencies.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

In 1931, Kurt Gödel came up with a new code, called Gödel numbering and used it to simplify the statements of Principia Mathematica down to prime numbers.  He was then able to show, through proving his incompleteness theorems, that every logical system will contradict itself in the long run.

In other words, while meaning can endure, every logical process will eventually crash, it’s only a matter of time.  There is no perfect code.

Selfish Codes

The most consequential information to us is, of course, that which is encoded in our genes. Evolution has ingeniously compressed an enormous amount of data into the very simple molecule of DNA, which, by the way, is also highly dependent on context and will fail if given the wrong environment.

While we normally see our DNA as a function of our biology, Richard Dawkins quite famously proposed the opposite view – that our DNA selfishly creates us in order to propagate itself.  We are then, simply vehicles for a battle between competing codes.

He then went further.  Dawkins also proposed that the meaning of concepts themselves are encoded in memes, which then compete very much like genes do. As Daniel Dennett said, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library”

In other words, it’s not always clear who’s coding whom.  A particularly interesting case is software developers, who call their work “coding.”  Actually, that’s a misnomer, because they write code only as a last resort.  Whenever possible, the find and re-purpose code that has worked well in the past.

Memes in Code

Just as memes are selfish and information wants to be free (essentially two ways of saying the same thing), media wants to be usable.  Simplicity is favored over complexity. Media, in order to become popular, strive to display the least originality possible without loss of essence.

Of course, the artistic impulse is exactly the opposite.  As Paul Dirac once said, “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite”

Therein lies the primary challenge of communication: to encode creativity while preserving meaning.  For when you stand in front of the Mona Lisa and take in the dazzling richness of brushstrokes on canvas, it is undoubtedly her encoded memes that led you to her.

Maybe that’s why she’s smiling…

– Greg

7 Responses
  1. July 10, 2011

    Hi Greg, I want to know what the Mona Lisa is REALLY thinking! 🙂 I will take simplicity over complexity any day. Have you noticed the “kids” today speak another language? For instance, as you write above: “vwls rn’t rlly ncssry” – that is what a typical text message or email looks like from my children. I have NO idea what they are talking about! And they in turn like to tease me about my messages which often look similar to theirs but for a different reason – I am not wearing my glasses LOL

  2. July 11, 2011

    Makes me think..

    World, humanity, nature and just about everything are complex systems. We call them “systems” in accordance to our conceived frameworks that allow us to explain some of their characteristics. In most cases, we have a glance and as we are biased (looking for affirmation of memes in our mind among the data/info in question) and easily satisfied (again, mostly we stop going much further once a set(s) of empirical data start corresponding to our theoretic model).

    Sure, some go further then others in their models and systems and some don’t.

    At the end of the day, any sort of systematization, quantification or encompassing effort on part of humans for any effect, event or structure of life is bound to simplify things, whether looking a lot or not too much of its essence/nature/information – we never know exactly how much.

    As you said it above, Goedel was the first who showed that hitherto unquestionable Euclidean geometry, based on a rather arbitrary set of axioms, was not complete or exhaustive in its respective domain. To be complete, a system had to be incomplete. A paradox? Perhaps just a glimpse to the “truth” (whatever you like to call it) of life. And this is a glimpse only. Most of what surrounds us consists of such and other logically contradicting and mind-boggling characteristics that we cannot perceive or even imagine existing.

    Human problem is – if i can call it a problem – that we can only deal with simplifications, notwithstanding our complex hardware (body) and software (mind). So we blunder into simplyfying and generalizing anything and everything. Those of us who are wiser know well that science is barely trying to respond to the HOW of life, without even being able to perceive the WHY and merely touching the WHAT.

    We love showing ourselves to be irrationally rational, and complexly simple. We are surely niether.

    Greg Reply:

    Interesting points. Very similar to what Wittgenstein called “aspect seeing.”

    – Greg

  3. July 29, 2011

    Interesting approach, but I’m afraid your article is going to be largely irrelevant after September 10, 2011. At that time I will be presenting in Rome the ultimate answer to the meaning of the Mona Lisa once and for all. The “Mona Lisa Code” is a term I coined over a year ago to refer to my symbolic interpretations of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. The answer to the Mona Lisa is found in it’s secret code of symbolism, not the mathematical postulations seen above. For more information about what is to come soon, you may visit

    Scott Lund – writer and documentary producer of the Mona Lisa Code

    Greg Reply:


    Sorry, I was not informed of your coining. Good luck in Rome. It’s beautiful in September!

    – Greg

  4. March 4, 2012

    Very true. I believe that simplicity is appreciated only because everyone knows that making things simpler is a very complex task, that is, we make things simpler only by dealing with the most complex problems associated with that piece of work.

    I am a writer and I can say that making a sentence shorter and simpler is beautiful but it involves a lot of thinking. And to be able to write simple, you should first know what is complex. A user gets the best out of a piece-of-content if it is explained in the simplest possible way.

    And, I really liked you answer to Why is Mona Lisa smiling? Brilliant.

    Greg Reply:

    Great ponts Girish.


    – Greg

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