Good Enough Versus Even Better

To find the best possible solution to a problem, scientists have to avoid the trap of the ‘local maximum.’

If we could start from scratch, we’d be better off, no doubt, using metric units instead of inches and feet, duodecimal (base 12) numbers instead of decimals, and Dvorak keyboards instead of QWERTY. But in parts of the world where inches, decimals and QWERTY are the standard, people have built habits of thought and devices around them, so switching would be far from painless. These are homely examples of a profound issue that haunts both science and the human condition: the specter of local maxima.

To understand local maxima,...