For The Quarterly Review of Biology…
Review of Melanie Mitchell (2009) Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
Complexity – what is it, and does it matter? Melanie Mitchell, a denizen of the community of complexity researchers provides an engaging introduction to the many interdisciplinary issues surrounding attempts at understanding how fantastic holistic attributes can arise from teems of underwhelming components. …how minds arise from simple neurons, and cagey ant colonies from embarrassingly thick-headed individual ants. The book is primarily aimed for the undergraduate or high school student, covering nearly all the first-order facets of complexity within dynamics, information, computation, evolution, and networks. But even researchers familiar with the traditional stomping grounds may enjoy many of her meta-discussions on where the field of complexity stands today, and whether it is progressing or dying. Melanie Mitchell’s book may itself exemplify a very good reason for maintaining “complexity” as a monicker for the suite of disciplines it unites: books like hers may be pegogically useful for the growth of young scientists. First, the topics taken up in her book are exciting to newcomers, tapping into the romance of science many of us researchers once had (and now struggle to recall). Second, the issues in complexity require interdisciplinary training, which may serve to motivate students to get interdisciplinary training, something they will never regret wherever they end up in science (and odds are they won’t end up in “complexity” proper). Third, an introduction to the problems under the heading of complexity helps put students in a non-reductionist mindset, so that when such complexity-fed students land in traditional scientific disciplines, they push their fields toward the development and testing of large-scale, unifying theories. If Melanie Mitchell’s book were required reading for undergraduate freshmen, I would anticipate a large surge in the number of students interested not only in complexity, but interested in science more generally. And not just more students, but students more exercised about what may lie ahead as they attempt come to grips with nature.
[A related story in ScienceDaily: cities shaped like brains]