Sunday, November 27, 2005

A few simple rules...

I have really enjoyed reading "Complexity." Having had a brief introduction to complexity theory before, I was grateful for an easier read and appreciated Waldrop's personalized stories of foundational researchers. I'm not sure I understand complexity theory any better than I did before, but I do feel more grounded in its evolution and key players.

If I understand it correctly, a key assumption about the edge of chaos is that a few simple rules allow greater creativity and dynamical evolution than does a robust structure, and slight changes in initial conditions can have enormous systemic effects. While the mathematics behind this assumption are beyond me, I noticed a pattern among the biographical stories that brought it to life for me. In Langton's story in particular, it's clear that a few simple "rules" like commitment to his own interests, drive to contribute to society, and very high risk tolerance facilitated the development of an intellect and a career that, from the outside, appeared to be chaotic and directionless.

Langton isn't the only character in the book whose career trajectory followed an unpredictable path. The Santa Fe Institute became a sort of attractor that drew together these social and academic outliers into a cohesive, collaborative and highly productive system. It's encouraging to trust that following one's own instincts can lead to such fulfilling results, even if the process is painful at times. As we progress on the roads of academia, I think it would serve us well to remember the power of adhering to a few simple (personally chosen?) rules.

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