Lewin: Complexity

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Roger Lewin, Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. New York : Collier Books, 1992. 208 pages with selected bibliography.

Unhappily, this is another of those rare books that I did not bother to finish, abandoning my reading about halfway through. "Unhappily" because it had been recommended by a friend, and I don't want to discourage friends from recommending titles to me. Complexity I found far too irritating to continue reading, largely because it exhibited two characteristics that I deplore in popular-science writing and science journalism: an over-fascination with scientific personalities and too much gee-whizism.

The subject of the book is the emerging (at the time) "science of complexity" about which the author was (at the time) breathlessly excited. "Complexity" – which has never panned out as a "science" but is a potent concept -- is the idea that unexpected characteristics can emerge ("emergent properties") in systems composed of many, many interacting parts ("agents"); the interactions will be nonlinear and the emergent properties can be quite unexpected.

Understanding systems with emergent properties has been an active and productive area of research now for some decades – and have been well written about (see, e.g., Ball: Critical Mass). Optimistic researchers hope that ideas of complexity will explain many heretofore intractable biological and social systems, and shed light on consciousness itself.

However, rather than explain the sources and applicability of the central ideas of "complexity theory", or examine their implications and possible utility, the author seems to prefer his "science of complexity" to be mystical and incomprehensible as a way to elevate its importance. He explains nothing behind the ideas he tosses about, content to fling buzzwords hoping that the shiny reflections from their glittery surfaces will entertain and distract the reader from the author's deficiencies in exposition. It's a vacuous approach that offers no enlightenment, merely uninformed spectacle.

Much of the narrative takes place in and around the Santa Fe Institute, an organization created to devote its energies to studying complexity. It might be an interesting place with interesting things going on, but the author treats his narrative as a comedy-variety show replete with colorful characters (scientists) who display various eccentricities (ideas) and sartorial affectations. It's science as it might appear in People magazine or on Entertainment Tonight! Alas, the ideas that should be center stage are left in the green room.

In the end – perhaps I should say in the middle – the book obfuscates more than it illuminates, leaving the reader more puzzled than before picking it up. The blurb on the back cover says that the author received, in 1989, the first Lewis Thomas Award for Excellence in Communicating Life Science, which award he should be grateful was given before he wrote this book.

-- Notes by JNS

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