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Frontiers of Complexity

Coveney, Peter, and Roger Highfield. 1995. Frontiers of Complexity: The Search for Order in a Chaotic World. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Accessible yet rigorous, this book goes far beyond most popularizations of “chaos” theory and presents the science of complexity, its historical origins, and current applications to cosmology, particle physics, ecology, evolution, and neurobiology. The emphasis on scientific computation and visualization as the microscope and lab bench of this new science is particularly welcome

Reading level: Intermediate

Authored by a scientist and a journalist, Frontiers of Complexity is probably the first book on the subject I ever read. And back in the mid-90’s when it was published, I was not ready to understand the implications of the ideas. In hindsight, this book and their previous one, The Arrow of Time, were probably ahead of their time.

Coveney and Highfield begin their description of complexity as irreversible, nonlinear processes. They introduce the idea of the universe as having an innate tendency to self-organize and generate complexity. They provide the usual descriptions of the limitations of classical, reductionist science, especially when it comes to life. But mostly, this book is about how mathematics and computing enable “flights of fantasy” into developing alternative perspectives on how the universe works.

In particular, it sells the idea of the importance of broader, inter-disciplinary approaches to doing science:

Conventional science is frequently blind to the connections that can be drawn between frustrated metals, the rise and fall of stock prices, and a host of other complex phenomena. Most scientists today restrict themselves to the detailed study of only one aspect of a single sub-discipline within one branch of the tree of science. Yet the majority of real-world problems – and therefore most of those in modern industries and societies – do not fit into neat compartments. To solve them, people must be able to communicate across traditional boundaries. Many scientists, who today are almost by definition specialists, may feel suspicious of, if not threatened by this message. Unfortunately, our present education system hardly prepares us for such an approach. As Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann has argued, we must get away from the idea that serious work is restricted to “beating to death a well defined problem in a narrow discipline, while broadly integrative thinking is relegated to cocktail parties. In academic life, in bureaucracies, and elsewhere, we encounter a lack of respect for the task of integration.”

In generally accessible terms, Frontiers of Complexity describes much of the history, development and importance of many complexity ideas we now take for granted. These include: cellular automata, chaos and fractals, genetic and evolutionary algorithms and neural networks. Fundamentally, the book is mostly focused on new ways of doing science using the power of computing. It is a book of popular science more than complexity. Its focus is on the hard sciences, especially those relating to life. It is interesting, but not very inspiring. Perhaps that’s part of the reason it took me another ten years to really “get it”.