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4.4 out of 5 stars
10
The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World (Penguin Science)
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 July 2011
This is a witty and at times brilliant book. The authors argue that the reductionist approach to science, which has flourished over the last 300 years, for a more holistic or contrextual approach. In the reductionist approach, scientists have choped problems into manageable bits - lab experiments or discreet mathematical problems - that eventually they assume will be fit together into a coherent whole. Nature in this view functions as a vast machine they can reduce and separate into its component parts.

TO prove their point, the authors embark on a dazzling tour of biology, chemistry and physics. But something is missing say the authors. What we know, they claim, are tiny islands in a sea of ignorance; it is self limiting as the larger questions get neglected. It is the causes of simplicity, they say - the order that suddenly emerges - that researchers should explore.

So, they conclude, it is time for a new set of questions. Unfortunately, just when we expect something new, it is here that the book gets a bit vague, with the authors falling back on anecdotes and speculation. They try to coin a new vocabulary ("simplexity" for the old and "complicity" for theirs); offer some diagrams of what they want, including an odd picture of mixing smoke with a unicorn head; and they harp on strange and abrupt conclusions, such as the importance of squid fat to the evolution of the human brain. But they do not offer a coherent new paradigm.

An uneven effort, but fun and very funny at times.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 19 February 2002
The title of this book is slightly misleading, as it implies it is about chaos, complexity and simplicity.
In fact the first half of the book is a guided tour of biology, chemisty and physics. Covering how these great sciences got where they are today, from Newton to Darwin, DNA to the lattice structure of diamonds.
The second half then presents a new way to look at science. Rather then delving inside something to find underlying rules, we should view things in context.
For example, traditionally the law of gravity is seen as the underlying principle that explains planetary motion. Cohen and Stewart argue that it is just a rule (of thumb?) that fits the facts, and that there is no LAW of gravity, no grand design. Gravity is just the way it is, and our 'Law' of gravity suits our needs.
It seems a subtle distinction, but on reading this book it is quite an important one, and it has certainly given me a different view of the world.
Very intelligent and always interesting, this book is written for the layman and is always at pains to explains matters thoroughly and use every possible analogy to help get ideas across.
This book is worth twice the money for the first half alone - a perfect primer for those interested in science, but who dont want to get technical.
Cohen and Stewart are high level experts in their respective fields, and yet they write simply and lucidly, resulting in a desire to read further.
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on 1 February 2011
Having just read the other reviews about this great book, I am a bit surprised how little they refer to the central themes!

Essentially, this book is a discussion of reductive science (and it gives a wonderfully concise and fascinating description of its achievements) set against the idea of emergent complexity. This is the debate which questions whether all levels of complexity can be adequately explained by using more simple and law-like ideas. Having set this scene, the authors show some of the ways that patterns (simplicity) emerge from apparently chaotic systems... suggesting that understanding where such simplicities come from is actually more interesting and fruitful than understanding complexity.

Perhaps the most striking of the many illustrations and ideas are the ones about the relationship between geneotype and phenotype. This they do in ways which lead one to be excited about genetics but much more skeptical about its usefulness in answering many of the questions we find most important about ourselves.
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on 6 August 2001
This book is from what I call the 'anti-reductionist' school of scientific thinking. Its aim is apparently to break the link between what happens at the atomic level and the higher level, i.e. the more visible world of plants, animals, planets etc. If this break could be achieved, the world could then be claimed as free from determinism. This is a key area for philosophers and physicists, and it is linked to the existence of free will. The authors, who are experts in the fields of evolution and modern mathematics, have a mass of material at their disposal, and this seems at times to overwhelm them; my impression is that they could quite easily turn out thousands and thousands of pages on the theme! And that is, in my opinion, the main problem, for if one truly understands a subject, one should be able to express ideas and conclusions quite concisely. After reading the book from cover to cover, I was not at all convinced that there was a cohesive message in any of it. That isn't to say that it doesn't contain a mass of most interesting information; there is surely a lot of fascinating material in the book. But, it seems to lack analysis.
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on 21 June 2000
I have been reading quite a few books on the emerging science of complexity, on evolution and I am even trying to do a degree in 'chaos'. Something seemed to be lacking.
I certainly did like Dawkins' "The selfish gene", but, somehow I had difficulty believing that something that fundamental as our evolution could be explained by the selfishness of (rather complex) molecules that act as selfish replicators.
Cohen (a molecular biologist) and Stewart (a mathematician) take another approach. By looking at most contemporary science, and its history, ranging from Newton to Einstein to Darwin and Dawkins they describe in the first part of their book the reductionalist approach to explaining the world. In the second part they take the reverse approach, looking at the same 'features' (their word) from a more 'holistic' view point (although they rightly object to the word 'holistic').
They point out, in a way, where both approached flaw. It is, essentially, about explaining not why the world is so complicated and complex, but more why, on earth!, does it display so many simplicities? A fascinating approach that was new to me when I read it. Cohen and Stewart introdue two new concepts: simplexity and complicity to approach this, both looking through a different 'funnel' to the same features.
Their book is challenging and also very witty, with as a 'case study' a nice alien case study from the planet Zarathustra.
After having read this book I have adjusted the way I looked at the world. Therefore I also bought their latest book 'Figments of Reality' (Sep 1999). I have high hopes.
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on 4 April 2013
This was written (by me and Ian Stewart) in the early 1990's. It got great reviews then, and still reads well now (Ian's writing is beautiful...). If you want an introduction to complexity theory, this will serve well, still.
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on 2 May 2011
This is a brilliantly written and ingeniously styled book. Laid out in two reciprocal halves, with exquisitely mirror-image chapter titles, the book explores the paradoxical relationships between simplicity and complexity in nature.

The first half expounds the wonders and virtues of reductionist science, guiding us through a beautiful account of the overlapping wonders of maths, physics, chemistry and biology.

Six further chapters in part two remind us that reductionism only half the story of scienfific discovery. Reverse engineering emergent simplicities leads us [frustratingly] to the boggling underlying complexities. And what about the simple rules discovered by reductionism? Where do they come from ?

So, overall, the authors' plea is for genuine humility, reframing scientific endeavour as being at an early stage. We still know relatively little - we are not poised to reach the Holy Grail any time soon.
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on 7 January 2004
In my view an excellent book. It is hard to make science interesting and few writers do it well. It is even harder to make it funny, which these two also manage to do. But best of all is the quality of the thinking and the creativity of the ideas in this book.
There is much in science that is asserted without there being real evidence, and many theories which are accepted by science as proven when there are fundamental questions still remaining. If you have read "The Selfish Gene", and despite the brilliance and persuasiveness of the arguments still feel (as I do) that something is wrong you will like this book.
If you like to think, to be intellectually challenged and stimulated, to explore ideas, or to look at science in different ways than the conventional, I don't think you will be disappointed with this book.
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on 2 November 2004
So without repeating a lot of what has already been written above, I'd like to concur Bobobob5 on the whole.
The first half of the book is a quick romp through 'conventional' science, as they would have it, which is ok, but marred by the regular snidey asides at science and scientists. I think they are supposed to be jokey, but in fact it justs put your back up.
A lot of the science described is baldly stated and therefore not terribly interesting to read, especially as you know they are about to 'debunk' it. This is unlike Bill Bryson's 'Short History of Everthing', for example, which is a far more detailed and enjoyable overview of Science's achievements thus far. I would recommend Mr Bryson's book in place of this first half of the 'Collapse of Chaos'.
And then the 2nd half is indeed muddled and confusing. We certainly get the impression that they think 'reductionism' is limited, but they don't half have trouble trying to explain why. They seem unable to explain their ideas without a myriad of odd analogies to 'prove their point', which do more to obfuscate than clarify. Talking endlessly around a subject is no substitute for a clear point rationally argued.
For a more rigourous and intellectually stimulating discussion of how consciousness can arise from simple rules, and whether a conscious being can ever 'know' itself, Hofstadter's 'Godel, Escher, Bach' is still lightyears ahead.
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on 8 January 2015
Brilliant book
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