Unfolding the Mysteries of Complexity
A growing number of related observations about the world are increasingly striking some scientists as not only arresting but deeply significant. Why are the metabolic rates of organisms as different as bacteria, blue whales, and giant redwoods all proportional to body mass raised to the power of 3/4? Why is it that patent production increases as cities grow in size according to a factor of 1.2?
Alternatively, has the evolution of cells anything in common with the evolution of civilizations? Or can the patterns of behavior observed in colonies of bacteria be mapped onto patterns of behavior observed in human societies? Are there laws describing underlying complexities that help us to understand why such patterns and regularities exist?
The Principles of Complexity is a project designed to push deeper into this cutting-edge science. Running at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico under the direction of president Jeremy Sabloff, a team of leading scientists is exploring the fundamentals that might govern the hidden regularities of complex systems across the physical, biological, and social realms. The work is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
In August, the project team hosted a public gathering to discuss its first year of exploration. Part of the gathering featured a panel discussion, which can be viewed online. The panel included Nobel laureate, Murray Gell-Mann; British archaeologist, Lord Colin Renfrew; physicist and Oxford University director of energy research, Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith; Portland State University professor of computer science, Melanie Mitchell; and was chaired by David Krakauer, professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he is founding director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. “Curiosity can drive you into all sorts of things,” observed Gell-Mann. Curiosity is driving the search for new ways to understand the bigger picture at the heart of the science of complexity.
It may be that evolutionary considerations can explain some of the apparent connections. For example, all systems—from cells to societies—need sources of energy. It may be that there are a limited number of ways to efficiently tap energy resources, and so the common patterns observed at these very different scales reflect the best ways to access energy. If so, cells and tissues might evolve in analogous ways to societies, such as forming efficient fractal-like networks of connectivity.
The optimal distribution of information may also demand related processes. One idea is that an increase in organism size brings an increased ability to negotiate environmental uncertainties because size increases the capacity to process information.
During the panel discussion, Renfrew observed that basic issues in human history may be better understood via complexity, too. The emergence of human consciousness and culture is not understood at all well, for example. Neither is the so-called “sapien paradox,” which asks why complex societies emerged at roughly the same time around the globe, though without apparent connection.
It has only become possible to study complexity in the last few years because of the huge data sets that are now readily obtainable. They reveal aspects of structure and change in many areas with extraordinary detail. Coupled to this explosion in data is an unprecedented rise in computational power. “The science enables us to pursue these questions not just as philosophical issues but as mathematical problems,” continues Krakauer. “We can take the data and systematically test hypotheses in a way that couldn’t, or was extremely difficult, to do before. We can address historical problems in biology and archaeology, for example, which might have seemed intractable for lack of data in the past.”
Mary Ann Meyers, the John Templeton Foundation’s Senior Fellow, notes that complexity has been identified by the Foundation as a priority area for research. “Sir John Templeton,” she says, “was fascinated by the argument of scientists and philosophers that within many natural systems, and perhaps even within the universe as a whole, one finds an inherent tendency for complexity to increase with time however uncomfortably the claim rests with the concept of thermodynamic entropy. The idea of dynamic behavior resonated with his belief that the cosmos has never ceased to be creative.”
The Principles of Complexity research project runs for three years, coupled to a series of workshops that focus on issues such as the evolution of complexity and intelligence; the scaling laws that pervade natural phenomena; patterns in complex societies; and ways further to increase scientific literacy in understanding the principles of complexity. “The grant from JTF has been particularly valuable because it allows us to address open-ended questions that range across disciplines, rather than having to focus on narrower issues, which many grant-making bodies insist on today as funds become more scarce,” says Krakauer.
The project will address a number of methodological questions too. It is tricky bringing together disciplines as diverse as archaeology and computer science, or theories as different as thermodynamics and evolution. To continue to make scientific advances, it is important to figure out how to store data so that it can be shared and compared, and also what kind of modeling will best reveal otherwise hidden patterns. More far-reaching issues again include the structure of the modern university. “The Santa Fe Institute deliberately does not have departments in order to enable intellectual cross-fertilization,” explains Krakauer. “Might this be an institutional model that is not only effective but required to do excellent work on complexity?”
Templeton Fellows to Pursue the Unity of Knowledge
What is human creativity and how does it manifest itself? What is the place of the human mind in nature? How might basic assumptions be rethought so that descriptive scientific conceptions of the world can be integrated with normative philosophical and theological concerns?
Pursuing the Unity of Knowledge: Integrating Religion, Science, and the Academic Disciplines is a new three-year program based at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. It will foster inquiry by treating secular and spiritual knowledge as mutually beneficial ways of learning. “This new initiative will examine in-depth, serious questions that deserve sustained study,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame’s president.
The grant from JTF will support residential Templeton Fellows, a program of collaborative research including Templeton Colloquia, workshops, and other events, and a $100,000 interdisciplinary research library collection at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries called the Templeton Collection. Potential candidates for the fellowships are invited to apply by November 1, 2012.
A First for Healthcare and Spirituality
The first comprehensive textbook on spirituality and healthcare has been published by Oxford University Press. The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, is edited by Christina Puchalski, Mark Cobb, and Bruce Rumbold.
For more than a decade, Puchalski has been working to foster a more compassionate system of healthcare through her research, education, and policy work at the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health (GWish). “We needed to build the scholarly and clinical work as a basis for this emerging field,” explains Puchalski. “The textbook is a reflection of how far we’ve come in developing a scholarly field in spirituality in health.”
Over the last few years, a growing number of articles have been published in medical and healthcare journals on spirituality, demonstrating that there is a great interest in this area, but there has been no attempt to publish a standard text on the subject. Serving as an interdisciplinary textbook that can be used in medical schools as well as classes in public health, nursing, social work, and pastoral care, the new book includes contributions from clinicians, chaplains, philosophers, social workers, nurses, theologians, and public health professionals.