Skip to main content

Complexity: a guided tour – Melanie Mitchell ****

This book made me want to cheer, because with this title OUP has got it right. I dearly love Oxford University Press, and time after time they come up with popular science books that sound really interesting. Only, when you read them they can be dull and not very well written, often, I’m afraid, because the author is an academic. But this time, in this fascinating guide to complexity, emergent systems, networks and more, they’ve found an author with just the right tone who has the ability to make the subject interesting while still conveying her own interest and involvement in the field.
You may have come across complexity as an adjunct to chaos theory – and chaos is covered in here, but there are so many other things too. In looking at the background, Melanie Mitchell includes the theory of information and computation, plus tying this theory into evolution. She introduces us to genetic algorithms and other computer-based mechanisms for systems to evolve, including the potential for using these approaches in problem solving. We discover cellular automata and an attempt to get computers to understand analogy. And there’s a whole section on the hot topic of networks, from the World Wide Web to the human brain. Time and again we see how simple rules and structures can evolve into complex results that can be difficult to predict in their real world forms.
If I’m picky, Mitchell does occasionally give us too much detail, falling into the ‘boring lists’ trap – and some of the items she covers are presented in too technical a way. There’s also a statement at one point ‘Given a room full of air, at a given instant in time each molecule has a certain position and velocity,’ that would have a physicist cringing – for quantum particles, there aren’t values for the properties until a measurement is taken, and even then the uncertainty principle ensures we can’t know both with any accuracy. But the statement is made in the context of some classical statistical physics, so is almost forgivable.
The reader is probably left with a slight sense of doubt. There seems to be a lot of science here that’s fascinating, but can’t really be used for anything. But that’s not the author’s fault, it just reflects the nature of complexity – at least in our present level of understanding – and Melanie Mitchell’s book will certainly ensure that the reader has a good picture of what it’s all about.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …