Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger

kluger-simplexityA lot is made of complexity and complex systems. A prime example is the formation of materials from atoms. Atoms are, for the most part, relatively simple things. However, put them together, and very complex behavior emerges, from basic defects such as vacancies and dislocations to properties such as superconductivity and fast ion conduction. Another example is the complex behavior of even the simplest of ecosystems created by ants.

Understanding how complex systems arise from simple components — in essence simplifying them in a way that can be used to make predictions and design useful systems — has become a science in itself. In his book Simplexity, Jeffrey Kluger gives an overview of this new science. His approach is to describe many different examples of how complexity is hidden around us, how complexity emerges from simplicity, and how complex things can be understood via some simple rules. This connection, between complexity and simplicity, leads to the term simplexity. The framing thread is the work done at the Santa Fe Institute, founded to study exactly these kinds of issues.

The examples Kluger describes are definitely very interesting. They include the spread of disease (how such seemingly complex and random things such as the spread of disease can be traced to simple origins), the complexity of different types of jobs (driving a truck is more complex than being a middle level manager), and how hard it is for people to judge risk to themselves (illustrated by the behavior of people in the Towers on 9/11).

The examples do a good job of describing various aspects of complexity science, of showing how things we think are simple are really very complex and vice versa. And I did learn a number of things. For example, in evacuation routes in buildings, they purposely put false columns in the rooms to break the flow of people to emergency exits as that adds some “turbulance” that makes the overall flow of people smoother and less likely to jam at the doors. Also, in describing how our technology has become overly complex, so much so that most of us can’t really figure out our devices, at least not fully, he tells about research going on at the Media Lab at MIT on the “bar of soap“.  This sounds like an awesome device, something that would be awesome to see and the implications for technology in general and how we interact with it are really intriguing. And these are just a few of the things that I learned.

However, I was overall disappointed, because I don’t feel like I learned anything about the science of complexity. I learned about how things are complex, and how they can be simplified in some ways. And some of the specific examples were really interesting. But, I really didn’t learn about the science behind it, how complex systems are studied, how they are classified, or how they are characterized. What makes a complex system amenable to study? To simplification? What makes a collection of simple things complex? The book is a bit of a tour de force of examples from complexity science, but there isn’t any deeper probing behind any of it, nothing that gives any deeper insight.

Thus, as an introduction, of a teaser of the science, the book succeeds. However, as any real introduction to the science itself, it felt flat to me.

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