Hawking’s Hug – Embrace Complexity, Young Grad

Scientific American has the longest record of continuous publication of any U.S. magazine. For 170 years it has brought readers insights about developments in science and technology. [i] The magazine’s publishers take pride in its history of “pinpointing emerging trends before news of them reached the general population.”[ii]

In 1901, the magazine published photographs of the Wright Brother’s Flyer two years before its first takeoff at Kitty Hawk. Thomas Edison presented the magazine with the prototype of his newly invented phonograph for inspection. Samuel Morse, father of the telegraph, and Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, were frequent visitors at the magazine’s offices in New York City. In 1921, Robert Goddard contributed an article on his idea for a rocket capable of planetary flight. In 1927, the magazine reported on the practical demonstration of television.   The publishers quest for “immediacy, timeliness and authority” led to its requirement that only pieces written by people who actually did the work,” rather than reporters, be included. In the early twenty-first century, Scientific American has focused on the latest new thing, identified in its pages as complexity and emergent phenomena.

What sells

In 2013 Scientific American published an article entitled, “Stephen Hawking’s advice for twenty-first century grads:  Embrace Complexity.  The article suggested that “[u]pcoming grads should . . . focus on what sells. . . .”[iii] What sells, it told the reader, could be found in physicist Stephen Hawking’s Millennium Interview, given to the San Jose Mercury News in the year 2000. “I think,” Hawking said, “the next century will be the century of complexity”[iv][v] For Scientific American, embracing complexity in a big Hawking Hug was the emerging trend. Degree programs featuring complexity are proliferating.   Jobs and careers are opening up. Per Scientific American, twentieth century thinking needs an update. The magazine framed its advice to grads in a description of the new landscape,

While the reductionist zeitgeist of the twentieth century yielded great dividends, we are now seeing a movement away from strict reductionism toward emergent phenomena.  While the word “emergence” is often thrown around as a fashionable place-card, the fact is that complex, emergent phenomena do need a different kind of skill set.” [3]

 

The suggestion for grads looking for a good job was a big Hawking Hug that included a lot of classes in statistics and data visualization.

A City Faith

The reductionism mentioned above is a way of saying “the whole is the sum of its parts.” For example, a car can be reduced to an engine and other parts. An engine can be reduced to a camshaft, pistons and still more parts. Pistons can be reduced to metal. Metal can be reduced to atoms. It’s an infinite chain down to the smallest element.

Similarly, a building can to reduced to bricks and mortar. An economy can be imagined as made up of smaller elements, such a labor and capital. The mind can be broken down into ego, id and superego subunits.

Reduction involves the simplification of complex objects. This allows logical theories to operate on the parts. Simplify the economy and economic theories can operate. Simplify the human body using test results, and a physician can diagnose an illness. Simplify the animal kingdom by type and the biologist can do his or her job. Hard core reductionists believe everything can be explained based on the operation of simpler parts.

Emergence, in contrast to reduction, imagines processes where the whole is greater the sum of its simple parts. Something different and unexpected appears. Dumb individual ants produce “intelligent” and flexible colonies. Dumb individual brain cells produce an intelligent person. Simple individual molecules in the air produce weather patterns. Simple individual conversations produce orderly languages. For the hard-core reductionist, the idea of emergence is heresy.

Among the sins of emergence is that order can emerge unexpectedly from disorder. Another fault is that emergence fails to present an easy-to-visualize presence, like the moving parts of a Wright Flyer. Getting at the inner workings of emergent phenomena has required the use of computer-based tools, such as computer simulation and data analysis.

The new toolkit operates stealthily, behind the scenes and out of public view. Because of this, emergence baffles and offends those who imagine a world where one thing must clearly follow another.

Visually, Hawking’s century of complexity is a dud. The nineteenth century Age of Steam evokes belching locomotives. The atomic twentieth century triggers visions of blossoming mushroom clouds. The Century of Complexity evokes, if anything, the image of a spaghetti snarl of twine. Google for an image of the word, emergence, and you get pictures showing order in nature.   Fish in a school, a flock of birds, seashells, a tree, or a butterfly wing are living demonstrations that order can emerge without a leader or central plan, that is, spontaneously. The examples don’t to show emergence, just its end product. The image could just as well have been a cartoon of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

For reductionism, a Google search turns up cutaways of simplified models of animals and humans with gears inside, instead of complex organs and tissue..

Reductionism is the faith of the city. In the city, landscapes are laid out in neat grids. Mechanisms operate reliably. Careful experiments in hygienic labs produce reliable scientific Facts for experts and the public to consume.

Emergence belongs to wild landscapes. That living communities can produce order on their own offends the reductionist city faith.

Reduction has its benefits. It allows for simplifying assumptions. Imposing grids and categories on the unruly real world allows governments and professionals to operate. But, there are problems. Exposing these problems and then offering alternatives, based on clever use of complexity and emergence, is developing into a popular pastime in some quarters as the new century has matured.

The Tame and the Untamed

Yale professor James Scott, in his 1995 book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, analyzed a rogues’ gallery of modern reductionist catastrophes.  Here’s how he put it:

[S]tate simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft. . . did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to. . . “[vi]

States, according to Scott, see only numbers, not the complex tangle of human and natural communities. Reducing that tangle to usable metrics is what he meant by the term, “state simplification.”

Scott noted that these simplifications produced problems. For Scott, “. . . ‘fiasco’ is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind.” Scott offered the Soviet collective farm as an example. In that instance, simplification of a complex network of farm community relationships that had emerged over hundreds of years was fatal. Millions died. According to Scott, efforts to apply reductionist schemes to tame nature led to similar catastrophic results. In his view, the “selective reality” of scientific models led to a “narrowing of vision” that sought to control “a far more complex and unwieldy reality.”[vii]

What Scott did for the outdoors, Harvard Medical School professor John

Ratey and journalist Richard Manning did for human health. Their 2014 book, Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilizations, pinned chronic physical and mental health problems on the same kind of simplifications identified by Scott.   “ They observed,

One of the realizations we hope to deliver is how everything – how you eat, move, sleep, think and live – is connected. . . This seems simple enough, but it flies in the face of the fundamentals of Western thought, of science, and especially of modern Western medicine. The tame idea is to break down a problem into components, find out which component is malfunctioning, and fix that problem – an idea that works well enough with machines, but we are not machines. We are wild animals. The wild idea is to embrace complexity.”

Rooting for people to embrace complexity, as Scientific American, Scott, Ratey and Manning do, is an interesting development. But, it may have little effect on a culture that grew up relying on mechanistic simplifications.

Heading off chronic problems before they blossom into catastrophes is unlikely for the present. The habit of simplification and a “narrowing of vision” walls off access to the “far more complex and unwieldy reality.”  That habit makes it hard for those used to simplifications to look ahead. Even so, Scientific American’s admonition that students embrace complexity offers a pathway forward for the next generation.

[i] —, “Milestones,” The Scientific American, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/page/about-scientific-american/[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Jogalekar, Ashutosh, “Stephen Hawking’s advice for twenty-first century grads: Embrace complexity, Scientific American,
April 23, 2013, Stephen Hawking’s advice for twenty-first century grads: Embrace complexity
[iv] Ibid.[v] Gorban, A.N., and Yablonsky, G.S., “Grasping Complexity,” arXiv:1303.3855v1, March 18, 2013, https://arxiv.org/pdf/1303.3855.pdf[vi] Scott, James, Prof., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Failed, Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 1995, page 3.

[vii] Scott, at page 11.

 

2 comments

  1. Humans seem to struggle with change. Gratefully, emergence seems to occur under our noses, and we’ve recently developed some tools for us to begin to glean this abstract, other-worldly realm to the benefit of all.

    • Making a living in the new landscape will help make it people adjust to what John Ratey calls “going wild.” The idea that the world is divided into an orderly and a wild part is an abstract concept. Thinking of everything as part of a unified, wild whole is an everyday sort of notion.

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