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Customer Review

3.0 out of 5 stars Making the complex sound simple isn't so easy..., 29 Aug. 2012
This review is from: The Quark And The Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex (Paperback)
...and even this Nobel Prize winner has a difficult time reducing a lifetime's interest in mathematics, elementary particle physics, and nature conservation into one manageable and coherent whole. I'd even go so far as to say I found Murray Gell-Mann's Quark and the Jaguar to be an uninspiring and boggy slog. Don't get me wrong I enjoy a good pop science book now and again, and I found Feynman's Easy Pieces and Hawkings' Brief History both challenging but worthwhile. The problem with QatJ though is that it lacks the direction of other pop science narratives. Gell-Mann's main point about the significance of complex adaptive systems, their evolution, and humanity's ability to create other such systems sometimes gets lost amidst a flurry of chapters and sub-chapters that break up the narrative flow and lose the reader in an overly complex garden of forking paths.

The book is split into three sections and then one long conclusion. Each section relates to Gell-Mann's main life interests; namely mathematics, physics, and the evolutionary development of animal and cultural life on Earth. The narrative of the book then develops through differing mathematical definitions of simplicity and complexity throughout the first section. This complexity/simplicity difference is then applied to the realm of elementary particle physics and other fundamental laws in order to show how the complexity of the world as we see it comes from several (and ultimately one) basic universal law. The third section demonstrates how this complexity is the "playing out" or "winding down" of the universe through its gradual entropic levelling, complete with individuals and identities impossible on a more fundamental scale.

Gell-Mann concludes that complex adaptive systems are not lucky flukes in a universe of voids and gases, but an essential by-product of simple laws. Similarly, humanity's ability to direct our own future is a product of those same simple laws. It is our responsibility, he exhorts, as complex adaptive systems to react knowledgeably and sensitively to the developing needs of the world around us. To continue dogmatically with an economic approach that denies people quality of life, or to continue ideologically when people feel suppressed is to uphold maladaptive behaviours which we as humans are more than capable of replacing.

If Gell-Mann had lengthened his final section + conclusion at the expense of the first two much more ponderous sections then his book would have been more readable and more sympathetic to many people's concerns. But in the end this is neither Brian Cox nor E.F. Schumacher, neither one fish nor another, and three out of five is only fair.
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