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Complexity: A Guided Tour [Kindle Edition]

Melanie Mitchell
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

What enables individually simple insects like ants to act with such precision and purpose as a group? How do trillions of neurons produce something as extraordinarily complex as consciousness? In this remarkably clear and companionable book, leading complex systems scientist Melanie Mitchell provides an intimate tour of the sciences of complexity, a broad set of efforts that seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals. Based on her work at the Santa Fe Institute and drawing on its interdisciplinary strategies, Mitchell brings clarity to the workings of complexity across a broad range of biological, technological, and social phenomena, seeking out the general principles or laws that apply to all of them. Richly illustrated, Complexity: A Guided Tour--winner of the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in Science--offers a wide-ranging overview of the ideas underlying complex systems science, the current research at the forefront of this field, and the prospects for its contribution to solving some of the most important scientific questions of our time.

Product Description


She captures the excitement of research. (Ian D. Couzin, Science)

About the Author

Melanie Mitchell is Professor of Computer Science at Portland State University and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5002 KB
  • Print Length: 356 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0195124413
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (1 April 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #197,132 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Outstanding Overview of the Subject 7 Oct. 2009
Many general books on "complexity" either lapse into "gee whiz" amazement at the novelty of the insights that emerge to challenge the conventional wisdom of "the enlightenment project", or else are somewhat abstruse and technical for the interested lay person to absorb. This book avoids both of those traps. If the title, "Complexity: A Guided Tour" conjures up images of some ill-informed tour guide providing a party of tourists with a mixture of fact and colourful "pseudo-fact" in the form of various apocryphal stories, then think again. This is much more akin to a personal guided tour of a stately home by one of the family that has lived there for generations. Dr. Mitchell's love of the subject never seems to lead her into making exaggerated claims, and her extensive knowledge and experience prevent her from presenting as "fact" the usual collection of myths that are repeated in the populist accounts of the subject. For anyone interested in gaining an understanding of what insights are emerging from this broad and diffuse field, this book provides as good a place to start as any - better than most. For those with an informed interest in certain aspects of the filed, this book provides an excellent context for the topic as a whole. This is a book that I cannot recommend too highly.
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49 of 59 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Eyes opened by a thorough disappointment 24 Nov. 2009
Complexity a Guided Tour
Review of Melanie Mitchell's book "Complexity: A Guided Tour"

This is a thoroughly disappointing book; or an eye opener. Or maybe both.
Disappointing because the book does not cover much more than many popular science books already in the market (and it promised a bit more than that). An eye opener because the topic surveyed is still fairly fashionable and comes up in the end as fairly vacuus.

Who is the author, what are her stated goals?

The author is a well known computer scientist from the world renowned Santa Fe institute. Her goal is to survey what she implicitly holds to be "the great unexplored frontier of science". So far so good. She is actually careful to point out that as she will be talking about work in progress, some of the concepts might be a bit fuzzy around the edges and the book will be as much about clarifying "whether such interdisciplinary notions and methods [as complexity, emergence etc...] are likely to lead to useful science and to new ideas for addressing the most difficult problems faced by humans such as the spread of disease, the unequal distribution of the world's natural and economic resources, the proliferation of weapons and conflicts, and the effects of our society on the environment and climate".

Judge and party

The first problem with the book is that it is far from being impartial. Mrs. Mitchell does not hide her fascination for the topics that she studies (as a matter of fact someone not enthusiastic about one own's work would probably not go very far), but this makes her less credible in her attempt to provide an objective assessment of the usefulness of her own field of studies.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I got this on the basis of a recommendation by Cosma Shalizi. Cosma Schalizi is usually a lethal critical intelligence, but he is too kind to his friends. More seriously, the editors at Oxford, who should also be Prof. Mitchell's friends, if only for the most instrumental of reasons, fell down badly on their various obligations, because this is simply not readable. I started into it looking forward to a relaxed survey of stuff that I more or less know, but was stopped dead by the prose inside a page or two. If you open it at random you will encounter sentences (in this case, in fact, even a paragraph), like

'The DNA of a viable organism, having many independent and interdependent regularities, would have high effective complexity because its regularities presumably require considerable information to describe.' (p.99)

'Complexity' is 300 pages of this. I really did open it and put my finger down to find this example, I didn't search it out.

I will live with writing like this if (a) I have no alternative, and (b) someone is paying me a lot of money; i.e. if I am reading a commercial software manual. I won't live with it if I am reading an actual real book aimed at an elective audience.

I don't really blame Prof. Mitchell, who is clearly enthusiastic and learned, but on the evidence has no idea how to write; I do blame OUP, who should have gently told her so, and taken appropriate action before this went to press.
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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you are coming to this subject from an unrelated maths or physics field and looking to explore complexity and how it appears in Nature, this book may be perfect for you. Unfortunately, as a biochemist, I found the biology chapters far too basic and the maths ones far too advanced. I worked hard at it and managed to get my head around most of the tougher chapters, but beware biologists looking for an easy read - if you aren't in the mood for some hard thinking, this may not be the book for you!
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Few of Her Favourite Things 30 April 2016
By Andy
An explanation of how complexity-theory can be applied to a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. I particularly liked the chapter showing how a genetic algorithm for controlling a simple robot can evolve efficient solutions to an optimisation problem. Recommended for anyone with a background in general science who is interested in this alternative take.
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