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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Review: Complexity - The Emerging Science at the Edge of Chaos

 Complexity purports to be a book about the science and math of emergence. In reality, it actually is an account of the history and founding of the Santa Fe Institute, which is not a bad thing. As with many topics in science that cross disciplinary lines, it's unusual for research in that area to be pursued without independent funding.

The book covers not just the mathematical and simulation-oriented approach that led to the understanding of complex adaptive systems, but also the politics behind it, and why the Santa Fe Institute came to be in Santa Fe, as opposed to one of the major universities that everybody knows about. In particular, the proximity to Los Alamos was important and key to attracting physicists.

This turned out to be important, because the first area of research that the Santa Fe took up was complexity in Economics. The description of how physicists reacted to the Economists' presentation was classic and well worth reading:

the physicists were nonetheless disconcerted at how seldom the economists seemed to pay attention to the empirical data that did exist. Again and again, for example, someone would ask a question like “What about noneconomic influences such as political motives in OPEC oil pricing, and mass psychology in the stock market? Have you consulted sociologists, or psychologists, or anthropologists, or social scientists in general?” And the economists—when they weren’t curling their lips at the thought of these lesser social sciences, which they considered horribly mushy—would come back with answers like Such noneconomic forces really aren’t important”; “They are important, but they are too hard to treat”; “They aren’t always too hard to treat, and in fact, we’re doing so in specific cases”; and “We don’t need to treat them because they’re automatically satisfied through economic effects.” And then there was this business of “rational expectations.” Arthur remembers someone asking him during his talk that first day, Isn’t economics a good deal simpler than physics?” (Kindle Loc 2855)

There's lots of stories, including one about a major researcher in the field who drove and organized workshops but didn't pay attention to getting his PhD, which culminated into a crisis.

The boring parts of the book involve the politics and fund-raising. Not to say that it's not enlightening, but the lobbying over who gets to be president of the institute (and who shouldn't be --- a well known Nobel prize winner wanted the position) isn't really relevant to the science of complexity.

Nevertheless, the boring parts are easy to skip and the interesting parts are well worth reading. Recommended. (This book is available to borrow if you're an Amazon Prime customer) 


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