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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 16 August 2015

"At Home in the Universe" by Stuart Kauffman

Kauffman is a pioneering complexity scientist and this book endeavours to show how life could have emerged from a sufficiently large and diverse collection of molecules with autocatalysis. Despite being unable to point to an example where some scientist has successfully replicated the necessary reactions, his arguments are compelling. Complex networks of individual agents can give rise to emergent phenomena: life, consciousness and more. There is no need for a designer or an intelligence or indeed any external influence; you don't even need the agents to be purposeful or (in economic terms) rational. Given the right conditions of complexity (and in Kauffman's models, rather more than in those of Per Bak, there is a degree of tuning required to ensure that the parameters give rise to critical sustainability rather than subcritical inert stability or supercritical chaos), emergence will, er, emerge.

The phenomenon of self-organization means that systems not in thermodynamic equilibrium will create what Kauffman calls "order for free". The second law of thermodynamics continues, of course, to apply to systems in equilibrium, systems that are closed to inputs and outputs of matter and energy, in which entropy or disorder inevitably increases but Kauffman's systems are ones through which matter and energy flow.

Kauffman clearly finds these exciting. He keeps repeating his discovery that we are not the random products of chance, rather we are the inevitable results of the way the universe works. He is right, of course: this is a revolutionary thesis as important as the Copernican paradigm shift or Darwin's Natural Selection. But this is where I began to find the work a little muddled. His lyrical descriptions of the desert in bloom are presumably meant for the general reader but at the same time there is a lot of technical details about his theoretical models. On the other hand, when I try to understand more deeply these same models I am frustrated by gaps in the explanations. For example, he states a formula S = lnG and I think I know what he means by G but I am not certain; he is not clear. He tells us on page 163 that pleuromona has between 500 to 800 genes but on page 42 it is between "a few hundred to about a thousand". He explains that some systems can jump beyond the 'correlation length' of a fitness landscape but he never tells us how to measure this length. Perhaps this is just me not being clever enough or picking too many nits but a few minor changes could have really helped me understand this work.

This is an important and ground-breaking book. It would benefit from slightly better editing. August 2015; 304 pages.

Other works on this exciting topic:

Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:
  • The Wisdom of Crowds 
  • Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
  • Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
  • Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes

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