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This research will discover (by design and experimentation) dissipative chemical and physical systems that spontaneously become more “complicated” while dissipating energy: that is, systems that develop patterns, structures, or behaviors that they did not have when first formed, without human intervention.

Our research will be based on a constructionist design we call “synthetic complexity.” It has four steps: i) selecting components (which can be anything from molecules to polymer spheres) and characterizing them individually; ii) assembling these components in circumstances in which there is an input or gradient in free energy, and allowing them to interact dissipatively; iii) detecting unanticipated behaviors in the assemblies (e.g., the development of patterns in space and time, unexpected products, or unexpected adaptability or sensitivity to environmental change); iv) postulating mechanisms or theories to rationalize the coupling of dissipation with the emergence of order.

Our objective is to develop systems of reactions—inspired in part by processes occurring in life—that explain how free energy cascading through systems of components can generate order. The work will have four foci: i) autocatalysis; ii) localized combustion; iii) systems with feedback; iv) systems that utilize free energy present in gradients (in concentration, temperature, electrochemical potential, pH, etc.).

The research will have two outcomes. i) It will develop a constructionist intellectual framework for studying complex, dissipative systems, and for designing new systems; ii) it will teach young experimental scientists how to think about these problems, and to give them the skills to study them.

And, in the words of Richard Feynman, “That which we cannot create, we do not understand.”