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The way the world works,
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This review is from: Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Penguin Science) (Paperback)
Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop, Simon and Schuster, USA, 1992; Penguin, UK, 1994, 384 ff.
The way the world works
By Howard A. Jones
Mitchell Waldrop qualified initially with a PhD in particle physics but since then has pursued a career in science journalism. This book is essentially anecdotal and biographical. It described the formation in 1984 and history over the following decade of the Santa Fe Institute, an organization devoted to a study of complex systems in whatever field they may occur. Many of its principals, whose biographies are briefly described here in the context of the Institute, worked previously at the nuclear facility of Los Alamos.
The author makes it clear in the opening chapter that "complexity" is a subject that is relevant to most aspects of life, from economics to ecology, and from politics to particle physics. It's about `the incessant urge of complex systems to organize themselves into patterns'. Biologists have turned to the spontaneous emergence of complexity as their way of countering scientifically the arguments of creationism and "intelligent design" in the natural world. The innate quest for complexity that is built into atoms and molecules is used to explain the emergence of polymers like proteins and nucleic acids from the simple building blocks of amino acids, bases and sugars which, in turn, arise from even simpler molecules and their constituent atoms, obviating the need for divine intervention.
Complexity theory explains how chaotic systems often reach a "tipping point" such that a further small change in the system can produce huge consequences. The well-known `butterfly effect' - the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings in southern England producing a snowstorm in the Andes - is an example of these globally interactive but chaotic complex systems. We are continually being told that the global warming of our planet may be another such example and that a few more parts per million of CO2 or a couple of degrees rise in temperature will produce catastrophic climate change.
Economics is one subject that recurs frequently in this book. The author actually begins in Chapter 1 with the tale of Brian Arthur whose economic theory of increasing returns first met with great resistance from conventional economists wedded to the idea of diminishing returns. The idea of increasing returns quickly leads to a proliferation of pathways that requires complex network theory to model it. Much of Chapter 3 is devoted to the contributions of biologist Stuart Kauffman to how the order within living systems is a consequence of self-organization of their constituents. Chapter 5 focuses on John Holland and his complex adaptive systems and how they can be modelled by computer programs. Chapter 6 is about Chris Langton's struggle to construct computer programs to model what he called `artificial life'. In all complexity studies, computer modelling is the one necessarily constant factor, whatever field it is to be applied to. Chapter 9, the final chapter, is an overview of challenges waiting to be met by the Institute in the 1990s. For a highly readable introduction to the study of complex systems with the minimum of technical jargon I know of no book better than this one.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.
How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity (Princeton Science Library)