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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Complexity - A new Science

Yesterday, I finished reading Complexity , a book about the emergence of a new science.

Following are a few random highlights:
  • A new idea would not be a revolution if everyone believed in it at the start.
  • The crucial skill required to achieve a holistic understanding of any system is the ability to see connections among various parts.
  • Economics is hopelessly intertwined with politics and culture.
  • Neoclassical theory assumes that the economy is entirely dominated by negative feedback: the tendency of small effects to die away. However, Complexity theory suggests that given the right environment, the positive feedback dominates: the tendency of small effects to become magnified.
  • The QWERTY keyboard was designed by Christopher Scholes in 1873 specifically to slow the typists down; the typewriting machines of the day tended to jam if the typist went too fast.
  • The road to the Nobel Prize has generally been through the reductionist approach-dissecting the world into smallest and simplest pieces you can. So, historically there has not been focus in the scientific community to study systems (the whole). The real world demands understanding the whole web of connections.
  • Computational Science suggests that thinking and information processing are fundamentally same thing.
  • The process of technological change is like the origin of life. Both follow the fundamental evolution concepts.
  • Complex Adaptive Systems are the systems which constantly revise and rearrange their building blocks as they gain experience.
  • The biological and cultural evolution were simply two aspects of the same phenomenon, and that the "genes" of culture were beliefs-which in turn were recorded in the basic "DNA" of culture: language.
  • The state when the molecules are in transition from solid to liquid is the "edge of chaos". In solids the atoms are locked in one place and in liquids they tumble over one another randomly.
  • The paradox in evolution: the relentless competition that gives rise to evolutionary arms races can also give rise to symbiosis and other forms of cooperation.
  • TIT for TAT is the best strategy to ensure cooperation
  • One of the most striking characteristics of any living organism is the distinction between its genotype-the genetic blueprint encoded in its DNA-and its phenotype-the structure that is created from those instructions.
  • People who have a real dream, a vision of what they want to do, are rare.
  • "Second law"-A law that describes the tendency of matter to organize itself, and predicts the general properties of organization we expect to see in the universe.
  • Cockroaches have been around for several hundred million years longer than human beings, and they are very very good at being cockroaches. Are we more advanced than they are, or just different? It is very hard to define progress in biology.
  • With no objective definition of fitness, "survival of the fittest" becomes a tautology: survival of the survivor. Were our mammalian ancestors of 64M years ago more advanced than Tyrannosaurus rex (T-Rex) or just luckier in surviving the impact of a marauding comet?
  • In 1824 a young French Engineer named Sadi Carnot published the first statement of what would later be known as the second law of thermodynamics: the fact that heat will not spontaneously flow from cold objects to hot ones.
  • In 1840 the English brewer James Joule laid the experimental foundations for the first law of thermodynamics , also known as conservation of energy: the fact that energy can change from one form to another-thermal, mechanical, chemical, electrical, etc.-but can never be created or destroyed.
  • It was only in 1850 the two thermodynamics laws were stated in explicit, mathematical forms.
  • Before the 17th century, it was a world of trees, disease, human psyche, and human behavior. It was messy and organic. The heavens were also complex. The trajectories of the planets seemed arbitrary. Trying to to figure out what was going on in the world was a matter of art. But then comes Newton in 1660s, he devices a few laws, he devices the differential calculus-and suddenly the planets are seen to be moving in simple, predictable orbits.
  • Plato said that the "you can never step into the same river twice." He paraphrased Heraclitus who had said, "upon those who step into the same rivers flow other and yet other waters."
The book spends a lot of time explaining self-organization and artificial life. However, I still can not define them in simple terms.

Once you understand Complexity, everything around you will make much more sense.