The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Science ...

Here’s an almost Tweet-able thought that I had while making dinner yesterday evening. I was listening to a CD lecture from the Teaching Company on “Big History”, and the big professor (David Christian, who is definitely a smart cookie) was repeating one of his usual “big themes” from big history. I.e., that since the Big Bang, new forms of stuff seem to emerge over time that have increasing ability to concentrate energy flows, grow larger, interact, and perpetuate themselves or reproduce themselves. This applies (in something of a procession) to molecules, gas clouds, stars, planets, microbes, plants, animals, humans, tribes, villages, and civilizations. As things increase their abilities to concentrate energy and make their mark on reality, they tend to get more and more complex.

Ah yes, complexity!!! Another Teaching Company course subject. It makes me wonder . . . is there something fundamental about complexity, something inherent to it that causes things to be more able to gather more energy and do more stuff . . . or is complexity more of a side-show, more of an incidental thing? I tend now to believe the latter. If you had the talents and tools to build a wristwatch from scratch, you would appreciate how complex a wristwatch is. And yet, with those same tools and materials, you could build something else terribly complex that wouldn’t do anything.

And so, complexity doesn’t necessary bring more functionality. You can have complex things (like works of sculpture art) that can’t accomplish much at all. It’s just that things with increased functionality usually have increased complexity, as a side effect.

There is an interesting parallel here with the connection between entropy and information. As you concentrate more information into a smaller area, that area gains higher and higher entropy. E.g., you can have a computer memory composed of a 100 x 100 pixel grid with 100,000 boxes that can each be either white or black. If the overall grid is all white or all black, it has low entropy and not much information potential to it; not much of a story can be told by a blank wall. But if you apply some sort of translation code and try to store a sentence on that black and white grid, the overall “mixing up” of black and white spaces increases, and entropy goes up.

So, the more information stored on the wall grid, the more entropy that it has. BUT . . . you can also have a complex grid pattern with high entropy, but it will be nothing much more than a random swirl of black and white dots with no meaning behind it. Actually, there is a concept in computers called “accidental complexity” that represents just about the same idea.

So, both complexity and high entropy are good signs, as they are necessary side-effects of more energy flow and functionality, or more relevant information being available. But, they are not necessary pre-conditions to more functionality or more relevant information.

[One thing that more complexity does seem to help cause is increased fragility. Some things, such as the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire, grew big and flourished because they found complex ways to connect to and exploit the conditions of the times. Then those times and conditions changed. It’s going to be interesting to see how our highly complex, highly connected, highly specialized modern world responds to the changes that climate change will bring on over the next century. We may need to learn more about the connections between complexity and fragility.]

So, these are not exactly thoughts that will change the world or change your life, but . . . they may be a little step forward in trying to understand the underlying patterns of how our universe works.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:38 pm      

  1. Jim, Complexity I understand; well, at least I think I understand it. I say this because I tho’t I understood entropy, but it turns out that there’s much too much physics(?), engineering, etc., involved in it for me to understand the concept.

    So there I am left without much of anything to say. I do find myself wondering about Rube Goldberg machines and whether they fall under the complexity/entropy concept.

    Initially, I was thinking in terms of some of the ancient animals, say the sabre tooth tigers with their extremely large front teeth. I found myself wondering if the concept of complexity (which we probably could concede these animals had) with the idea of entropy (front teeth that became more of a hindrance than a help to the animal searching for food). But once again, I may be off the track on that.

    As to computers becoming “accidentally complex”: I think you’ve got a point there. Here I may be wrong, but I find myself wondering just why it’s necessary to have so many moving things on a computer screen, so much various information (complexity) that nobody needs or even cares to read as a side issue (entropy) when one signs on to the Internet. (My considered opinion is that those who wonder about ADD and all the various permutations of that problem among the ‘tweens should consider all the various things on most computer screens that scream for attention. Not helping in the ADD department as I see it. But I digress – or maybe I do not as I am not sure if I’m even in the ballpark or not on this topic.) Often just checking out some small thing will get a massive amount of ads and extraneous information that I for one do not need or want.

    I find myself reminded of a woman who recently told me she doesn’t use computers as it’s just another thing she really doesn’t have to have. I tho’t she likely has a good point there; and lately, I’ve been considering her point carefully.

    I certainly am sure I do not understand how complexity may “help cause. . . increased fragility”. Is this a physics or engineering term? Or does it simply refer to “fragile”. If it refers to physics and/or engineering or some other field of knowledge I’m totally ignorant of, then there’s the reason I don’t get it. However, if in this case “fragile” means “fragile”, I don’t get it. But then again, it may refer to the idea that the more complexity in a computer the more likely something is to go wrong (fragility)? That may account for the problem so many people have been having lately with their computers that just don’t seem to want to work right. (Mine for one.)

    So, rather than having an issue with complexity, entropy, or fragility, I think the problem with me and this post is that I am simply out of my league and don’t have a clue regarding what you are talking about. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 11, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

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