17.686 what is complexity?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Fri Mar 05 2004 - 04:41:01 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 686.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 05 Mar 2004 09:37:03 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: what is complexity?

I would be grateful for recommendations of books and papers on the topic of
"complexity". As you may know, this is a term commonly used in discussions
in or near computer science and the natural sciences to describe objects
whose organization thwarts ordinary analytic methods -- that is, a great
many things in the world. Hence something called "complexity theory". But
unfortunately though not surprisingly complexity isn't simple. "In general,
we seem to associate complexity with anything we find difficut to
understand" (Robert Flood and Ewart Carson, Dealing with Complexity, 1993).
Not only that, in fact much worse, is the tendency for apparently serious
people in scientific discussions to wave the term about as if its
meaning were perfectly clear and consensually well defined. Which it isn't.
Actually my ironic view of the academic world does not permit me such
simplicity. What I really think is that the term is often waved about to
us from attempting to understand what the author has just identified for or
excluded from discussion and doesn't understand very well him- or herself.

Since many if not nearly all of the scholarly objects we are concerned with
might be called complex, at least by ordinary people in an intuitive way,
there would seem some chance that the body of work going on under the
rubric in question would be relevant to us. Most of the literature on
complexity itself is, however, not easy for the outsider to understand,
sometimes for good reason. So once again I am looking for an Olympian who
can explain it to me in simple language. One such is Murray Gell-Mann,
Nobel laureate in physics, formerly at Caltech, now at the Santa Fe
Institute (http://www.santafe.edu/), which would seem a *very* interesting
place. In the journal Complexity 1.1 (1995) he published a fine piece,
"What is complexity?"
(http://www.santafe.edu/sfi/People/mgm/complexity.html), which very briefly
summarizes material from his book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in
the Simple and the Complex (New York: W H Freeman, 1994). This is exactly
the sort of stuff I am looking for. It would be very good to have more of
it, from other perspectives, e.g. engineering. It would be very good to
have some clear sentences from an Olympian about what people now think, in
2004, about the topic.

Any suggestions?


Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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