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M. Mitchell Waldrop
read on December 1, 2010

If you're like me, this book changes the way you think about science- which, as far as I'm concerned, changes the way you think about everything.

Complexity is about the first ten years of The Santa Fe Institute, a think-tank that studies complexity research. Complexity itself is, unsurprisingly, not something I can sum up in one sentence very easily. It is essentially the study of how systems change when there are many (millions) of agents in the system.

Take water, for example. There's nothing very complicated about a water molecule: it's just one big oxygen atom with two little hydrogen atoms stuck to it like Mickey Mouse ears. Its behavior is governed by well understood equations of atomic physics. But now put a few zillion of those molecules together in the same pot. Suddenly you've got a substance that shimmers and gurgles and sloshes. Those zillions of molecules have collectively acquired a property, liquidity, that none of them possesses alone. In fact, unless you know precisely where and how to look for it, there's nothing in those well understood equations of atomic physics that even hints at such a property. The liquidity is "emergent".

The whole book is how that emergent effect is found in other systems as well, and the implications of what changes and how. It really is a revolutionary way to look at things. The classical Newtonian way that we've been studying science for the last few hundred years has been studying static systems- changing only one variable at a time and seeing what laws we can deduce from that change and what that means in terms of the real world. The complexity idea does the opposite. It starts with the real world, with complex and imperfect systems, and finds what makes them tick.

I don't have a quote for it, but a great example from the book was the idea of technology in economics. In neoclassical econ theory, technology is something that just happens over time that improves productivity. Without electricity one firm can make 200 widgets with their fixed resources, and with electricity they can now make 10,000. The idea of where technology comes from isn't addressed. I never realized how crazy that was. Technology is one of the main drivers of increased efficiency and production, it's extremely important to econ, but econ just sort of assumes that it spontaneously happens over time.

Complexity describes technology in a different way, as an emergent feature of developed economies. It describes how you need a certain base amount of technology 'principal', which then allows further technology to develop. (For instance, think of all the tech that became possible after electricity, or engines, or vaccines were 'discovered'). There is a certain critical amount of technology necessary in a system, and after you pass it that economy can explode into a more productive era. The implications of this on policy are important. Should we send financial aid to countries that have not yet passed this mark? Will that aid actually help the economy?

This was a really remarkable book. It was published in 1992 and I'd love to get an updated version or followup that describes whatever progress SFI has made on these issues since then.

Addendum 2017: Looking back, this book fundamentally changed my perspective on complex systems. In the years since reading this book, I've come across the idea of emergent behavior countless times. Particularly in physiological and sociological settings, and in ways very fundamental to how those systems might work. Two favorite examples being that reasoning is an emergent property of a diverse group of people, and that consciousness is an emergent property of billions of neurons. For me, thinking of systems in terms of their emergent properties (or, more accurately, thinking of observable properties as emergent outcomes of a large set of individuals) has been a true paradigm shift. In our world of "big data" I think this is only going to become a increasingly necessary tool for understanding.

Author Bio:

Waldrop has a PhD in elementary particle physics at the University of Wisconsin. He has become a scientific journalist and author. At Science magazine he has been a senior writer. This book describes the Santa Fe Institute’s attempts to understanding emergence, life, adaptation, and complexity through a multi-disciplinary approach. It follows the development of the Santa Fe institute ( which still exists today. It contends that complexity in life (and in a variety of systems) is due to spontaneous self-organization.