Can Engineers and Scientists Ever Master “Complexity”?

John Horgan in Scientific American:

Complexity_image_I’m pondering complexity again. The proximate cause is the December 11 launch at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, of a Center for Complex Systems & Enterprises. The center’s goal is “to enable deep understanding of complexity and create innovative approaches to managing complexity.” This rhetoric reminds me of the Santa Fe Institute, a hotbed of research on complex systems, which I criticized in Scientific American in June 1995 in “From Complexity to Perplexity.” Speakers at the Stevens event include a mathematician I interviewed for that article, John Casti, who has long been associated with the Santa Fe Institute. The event’s organizers asked a few professors in the College of Arts & Letters, my department, to offer some concluding comments on complexity. I jumped at the chance, because I’m fascinated by the premise of complexity studies, which is this: Common principles underpin diverse complex systems, from immune systems and brains to climates and stock markets. By discovering these principles, we can learn how to build much more potent, predictive models of complex systems. Here are some points I hope to make on December 11:

*Researchers have never been able to agree on what complexity is. The physicist Seth Lloyd has compiled a “non-exhaustive” list of more than 40 definitions of complexity, based on thermodynamics, information theory, linguistics, computer science and other fields. Can you study something if you’re not sure exactly what it is?

More here.