What is Complexity: Part 1

A while ago, I noted that one of the subjects I’ve been exploring this year is that of Complexity.  I’ve read a number of books on the subject, and the first thing I’ve learned is that there is no commonly agreed definition of Complexity itself!  It’s a very wide ranging, interdisciplinary field.  Wikipedia has an excellent article on it, and I encourage you to check out the accompanying chart because it will give you a good overview of all the different areas included under the heading of Complexity!

So, as I’ve said, I’ve read several books now, and Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity by John Gribbin is one of the better overviews of the field.  I first encountered Gribbin’s books twenty years ago with his “In Search Of” titles, and I knew he was a skilled writer that can take a complex subject and make it so non-experts can understand without “dumbing down” the material, and he again accomplishes this in Deep Simplicity.

Gribbin begins with a short history that takes the reader from the early days of science and the Greeks to the beginning of the Twentieth Century, covering the development of Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry and how these lead to laws that could describe the world, as well as the phenomenon of Entropy – some processes don’t run in reverse spontaneously, unless you add energy to the system.  Unfortunately, adding energy to a closed system increases the entropy outside the closed system (i.e., the Universe!) and so entropy always increases.

He then moves on to a discussion of Chaos Theory.  Basically, the idea of chaos is this:  Given a system, very small changes in the starting conditions can lead to very large changes in the outcome.  For example, if you take two planets and calculate their orbits around each other, you will end up with a reasonably accurate systems if you run it forward a few hundred years.  If you add a third planet, however, there is no way to tell where the system will end up.  A more well known version is the so-called “Butterfly Effect” of the weather.  Forecasters can be reasonably accurate a few days ahead, but anything past a week is simply too complex to forecast accurately.  (Note that Anthropogenic Global Warming advocates insist that climate can be predicted 50 years in advance…)

Gribbin then talks about one of the most well-known equations in chaos theory:  the Logistic Equation, which discusses how population changes over time.  Gribbin uses this to demonstrate some common properties of Chaos.  In addition to the “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” noted above, Chaos curves split – a process called bifurcation – and then countinue to double until they hit a point where their behavior becomes (what else) “chaotic.”  I am very much oversimplifying here, but this is a deep subject and it’s hard to cover in a blog post what Gribbins uses an entire book to try to do!  Gribbin also covers cellular automata and fractals as examples of complex behavior arising from simple conditions.

One key item to note is that a completely chaotic system is not complex, and neither is a simple system.  Complexity lies somewhere in the middle.

Having laid this foundation, Gribbins now describes Complexity Theory.  He shows how complex behavior can arise in a system with two plates with a thin layer of liquid between them – add heat, and convection cells arise (rotating strips of water).  Add more heat, and eventually you get chaotic behavior, but in between equilibrium and chaos is the complex region with the convection cells.  You can also see this with your faucet – when it’s off, you have equilibrium.  Turn it on a little, you get a smooth stream of water.  A little more, and the water starts getting complex with twists.  On all the way, and it’s chaotic.

Gribbins also covers the concept of self-similarity – take a coastline, for example.  When you see it from space, it has a jagged appearance.  From the air, a mile up, still jagged, but on a smaller scale.  Walking along it, still jagged.  And so on.  Whatever scale you view it at, it’s still jagged and looks the same.  You can never really find the exact length of coastline because you can always reduce the scale and make it longer.  (Those of you with a Calculus background: It does approach a limit, of course, but I’ll save that for another day!)  In addition Gribbin talks about power laws – where the distribution on a graph follows a curve.  An example is the population of U.S. cities – New York City is obviously the largest, but the next largest comes in at about one-half of New York’s size.  And the third largest is about one-half of the second…and so on.  Power laws, surprisingly, can be found in many places in nature – complexity theory is exploring why.  Gribbins than describes network theory and how the dynamics of a system can be described by it.

Now, Gribbins gets to his objective, which is to show how complexity can be used to discover the properties of living systems.  It shows how a species can change through time based on outside influences, as well as how the operations inside a cell can be described by complexity and network theory.  In his final chapter, Gribbins talks about how this all relates to Gaia theory (Note:  Gribbins sees this as describing a COMPLEX SYSTEM, not as the earth being a living goddess or even one living creature).

Overall, the book was decent introduction to complexity, chaos, and networks and how they can apply to many areas.  This book was a little too focused on the biological end, though, and I think that Melanie Mitchell’s book Complexity: A Guided Tour is a better overview for that reason.  But Gribbins is very good at taking a “complex” subject and making it easy for the layperson to understand.

Note:  If you’re a Christian like me, the book is still worth a read.  Even if you don’t subscribe to macroevolutionary theory or the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, you can still get quite a bit out of this book, and I think it has a lot to say about microevolution!

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More on Linguistics – History of English Part 1

In my continuing quest to understand how culture and language affect thought, I picked up Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language, by Seth Lerer.  To be honest, I’m not sure it fulfilled  purpose as stated in the subtitle except in the broadest sense, but was still a worthwhile read.

The book, while arranged in chronological order, is really a series of essays on different periods in the history of the English language.  It begins with the earliest Saxon and Old English roots, giving copious examples, and notes how different regional dialects affected pronunciation and grammar.  He shows how French, introduced by the Norman invaders, had a strong influence on the development of English, how Chaucer brought in a lot of new words, as did Shakespeare, and from there he continues on into the development of American English, from the dialects around the country and their combination, especially during wartime, to Black culture to Mark Twain and idioms.

The main problem I had is that the narrative never really seemed to flow smoothly, and in a lot of places, it seems like he had a reader in mind who was more knowledgeable about linguistics.

That said, I learned a lot.  For example, the chapter on black culture exposed me to a lot of authors I might not have encountered otherwise, such as Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, W.E.B. DuBois, Alice Walker and of course, Toni Morrison.  He mentions black preachers, and quotes at length from Martin Luther King’s incredible “I Have a Dream” speech.  There is a description of Mark Twain’s use of the word “Dude” and how it changed meanings.  Some of the most beautiful poetry in the book is quoted in the chapters on Old English and it was fascinating to see parts of Beowulf and Chaucer in the original languages.

It’s a deep book and I don’t really think it’s for the general reader.  But if you’re interested in how the English langauge has changed over time and incorporated words from other languages this book is a good read for you.

As for me, I’ll be checking out Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way coming up soon!

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Review – Pink Boots and a Machete by Mireya Mayor

I recently finished reading Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer by Mireya Mayor. What does that have to do with International Security or Strategic Foresight, you ask? Well, consider this:

* 184 species of mammals, 182 species of birds, 162 species of fish, and 1,276 species of plants are critically endangered.
* Between 1990 and 2000, 3 million hectares of forests were cleared in Africa, Latin America, and the Carribean.

(Source: Contemporary Security Studies, 2nd edn, by Alan Collins, Oxford University Press, NY, NY, 2010)

Dr. Mayor is a Cuban-American whose mother escaped from Castro’s Cuba. With that kind of a pedigree, it’s no surprise that she grew up to become an explorer. But she never forgot her feminine side either – frilly dresses and time as a cheerleader for Miami (the Dolphins – Egad. We all have skeletons in our closet, eh?). But even as a child she loved to explore the outdoors, from crabs on beaches to bugs under the bed.

Mireya went on her first expedition to Guyana with a Hello Kitty backpack and pink boots. And a little black dress in her backpack…”just in case.” Her next trip was to Madagascar, where she investigated lemurs. As time went on, she ended up working for National Geographic, discovered a previously unknown primate, and earned a Ph. D. In one of the best chapters in the book, she describes what it was like to deal with three strong-willed men on a Jon Burnett (of Survivor fame) production (Expedition: Africa) that required her and the men to retrace Stanley’s footsteps across Africa to the place he found Dr. Livingstone. She was instrumental in the trip, and wasn’t just along to provide scenery but instead was a key member of the team.

And that is the best thing about the book. She talks about how hard it is to be taken seriously as a pretty face in the science field. She never slides into the trap of hiding her womanhood. She works hard and forces people to accept her for her skills and knowledge. She pushes through adversity and shows true grit. But she also still packs that little black dress…just in case. So in addition to the travelogue and the scientific thrills, she records the human side of her life, which helps you to see the real person she is.

In the last chapter of the book, Mireya talks about marriage and parenting. I was torn on this one. She has two daughters she doesn’t see for months at a time. She notes that she wouldn’t be a whole person if she had to give up exploring and that her daughters wouldn’t get her best if she wasn’t a whole person. Maybe. Although, their father is with them, so it’s not like they’re alone. But what is important is that they’ll learn how important it is to do something you love, how hard work can help to get you there, and finally, how important it is to be yourself. They may even learn an intriguing use for the stuffing in a tampon!

Nowadays, Dr. Mayor is active in conservation efforts. I hear a lot of rhetoric on both sides about this issue. But as I noted above, environmental security will be an issue in the Twenty-First Century, as China and India gear up their industrial production, as everyone continues the race for resources, and as third world countries try to raise their standards of living. Now, more than ever, it’s important to make sure that our children will still have wild places to see – and maybe, occasionally, a new species to discover!

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s an easy read, and never boring. Since budget limitations precluded maps in the book, I would suggest having an atlas nearby, especially for the locations on Madagascar (and if you don’t know where THAT is, you REALLY need the atlas!). I also hope Dr. Mayor will write other books in the future, such as on the primates of that island, or maybe on conservation efforts around the globe.

You can follow Dr. Mayor on Twitter – she’s pretty quick to respond! – at @mireyamayor
She also has a facebook page for both herself and the book
Finally, her official site is right here.