The Universe is a ‘complexity machine’

I am reproducing below an article published on January 23rd, 2015 in Science Daily  about a Clemson University study entitled  “How does the universe creates reason, morality?.”   I am also adding to the article relevant links (in parentheses) to outside sources.

image_1940-Local-UniverseRecent developments in science (Origin of Complexity in the Universe,  The Universe is Complex) are beginning to suggest that the universe naturally produces complexity. The emergence of life in general and perhaps even rational life, with its associated technological culture, may be extremely common, argues Clemson researcher Kelly Smith (Selected Works) in a recently published paper in the journal Space Policy.

What’s more, he suggests, this universal tendency has distinctly religious overtones and may even establish a truly universal basis for morality.

Smith, a Philosopher and Evolutionary Biologist, applies recent theoretical developments in Biology and Complex Systems Theory ( On the interplay between mathematics and biology: Hallmarks toward a new systems biology) to attempt new answers to the kind of enduring questions about human purpose and obligation that have long been considered the sole province of the humanities.

He points out that scientists are increasingly beginning to discuss how the basic structure of the universe seems to favor the creation of complexity. The large scale history of the universe strongly suggests a trend of increasing complexity: disordered energy states produce atoms and molecules, which combine to form suns and associated planets, on which life evolves. Life then seems to exhibit its own pattern of increasing complexity, with simple organisms getting more complex over evolutionary time until they eventually develop rationality and complex culture.

And recent theoretical developments in Biology and complex systems theory suggest this trend may be real, arising from the basic structure of the universe in a predictable fashion.“If this is right,” says Smith, “you can look at the universe as a kind of ‘complexity machine’, which raises all sorts of questions about what this means in a broader sense. For example, does believing the universe is structured to produce complexity in general, and rational creatures in particular, constitute a religious belief? It need not imply that the universe was created by a God, but on the other hand, it does suggest that the kind of rationality we hold dear is not an accident.

And Smith feels another similarity to religion are the potential moral implications of this idea. If evolution tends to favor the development of sociality, reason, and culture as a kind of “package deal,” then it’s a good bet that any smart extraterrestrials we encounter will have similar evolved attitudes about their basic moral commitments. 

In particular, they will likely agree with us that there is something morally special about rational, social creatures. And such universal agreement, argues Smith, could be the foundation for a truly universal system of ethics. (Moral universalism)

Smith will soon take sabbatical to lay the groundwork for a book exploring these issues in more detail.

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The Return of Simplicity?

Phone designers have raced for many years to come up with more and more features, connecting with just about anything that emits…  These features are designed to differentiate one product from another, but are they?  They likely confuse more than anything else.  When was the last time you used NFC on your phone?

Feature Bloat

“Tacking features on to products makes them harder to use” say Roland T. Rust, Debora Viana Thompson and Rebecca Hamilton (Harvard Business Review), in part because we have to learn and remember where to find and how to use these features.   To me, the traditional KitchenAid stand mixer (see photo) is the ultimate response to “feature bloat”.  The current mixer was designed in 1949 and has not changed much since.  It has only two main controls (lock or lift and speed) and a few attachments. In 1997 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art selected it as an icon of American design.

Uplifting the Brand

In a 2013 article entitled “The Secret to Successful Product Design? Simplicity.”, Debra Kaye articulates why simple products can be successful:

  • Clean, simple silhouettes with fewer bells and whistles reduce the message to an idea that is both immediate and clear
  • Icons that embody the prime characteristics of a brand or product are memorable and instantly identifiable on the shelf or online.
  • We are both culturally and biologically programmed to gravitate toward those things that we recognize. They give us a feeling of comfort and security.

Capability versus Usability

Developers and engineers (I am one of them) are still pushing for products and services with more capabilities when we really need greater usability.  Hopefully, marketing-savvy executives will learn from Kitchenaid’s success and happily return to more simplicity…

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Santa Fe Institute Complexity Classes Online Starting Sept 29 2014

The Santa Fe Institute is offering three free courses starting on September 29, 2014:

  • Introduction to Complexity is a re-offering of the popular introductory course, taught by Melanie Mitchell, with no prerequisites.   It’s appropriate for anyone with an interest in the field.
  • Nonlinear Dynamics:  Mathematical and Computational Approaches is a new course, taught by SFI’s Liz Bradley.  It will cover dynamics and chaos from both theoretical and practical perspectives, with emphasis on mathematical and computational tools.
  • Mathematics for Complex Systems is not so much a “course” as a set of mathematics tutorials covering the math topics most relevant to complex systems science.  If you sign up for this course, you’ll be informed when new units are ready

You can get more information on these courses at .

In addition to free courses, the Santa Fe site offers useful educational resources for complex systems under the “Explore” tab, including a glossary, a collection of web resources, and a set of course syllabi.  Check it out at

Complexity Explorer is a community project and the help of the community is vital for building it.  Get involved in this project by volunteering to submit additional resources, help create subtitles for videos, or even make a small donation to our efforts.  You can find information on all this at

Posted in Mathematics

Complexity of football (AKA soccer)

football_strategyBoth real and american #football are complex sports, primarily because they are team sports.   Skills and athleticism are required, of course but it is likely that teams and players at the #FIFA #WorldCup in #Brazil will all be top-notch athletes.   Italy’s defeat against Costa Rica today is a clear example of how complex dynamics are at play, making predictions difficult.

“The italians were caught offside 11 times, evidence of their failure to adjust and adapt”, said Marc Santora in the New York Times.   Adaptability is required because an important strategic feature of football is to optimize space when attacking and defending.   Players must adapt their positions and movements on the field not only based on where the opponents are and how and where they are moving, but also in relation to their own team players.  It’s like herding sheep!  In the 1970’s, “total football” further broke players’ spatial barriers by enabling them to assume different roles on the field.  Johan Cruyff, winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1971, 1973 and 1974, used to direct his teammates in real time while himself on the field.

It is the ability to adapt to the opponents’ tactics, and #complex interactions between players on the field, that, in the end, makes a World(cup)of difference.

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What Causes School Shootings?

Incidence of school shootings dead and woundedTake a look at the chart to the right.  It shows the number of school shootings in the U.S. by year (in blue), the number of dead (orange) and the number of wounded (grey). I just went to Wikipedia and tallied it up. I should say that I am not an expert on this at all.

After a fairly steady rate between 2000 and 2007, the number of school shootings, and the number of victims is increasing rapidly in the last few years.  The year 2014 is not half over, yet the number of incidents exceeds the number for the whole of last year.   I could not readily find recent numbers for gun availability and the ease of getting legal and illegal guns, but we know that the number has been going up.   The economy has rebounded and unemployment is down, and typically this tends to reduce crime rate.  But school shootings are not regular crimes, they are acts of desperation.  

Clearly, the chart suggests a certain dynamic, where factors influence one another to produce a curve that looks like a trend, not just spikes like in 2007 and 2008.  To me, this growth and this dynamic speak to complex interactions between multiple factors in play: the ease of getting fire arms,  cultural markers (“copy-cat” tendencies), and difficulties confronting the future.   This would suggest that curbing this dynamic (or complexity) will require a multi-pronged approach.  The first is clearly gun control.  How man shootings would have been prevented if guns were not readily available to their perpetrators?  But will that be enough?  The chart suggests to me otherwise.  Focus has to be placed on the dynamic between the factors and how this trend can be broken.

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Jazz and Complexity (Ode to Chick Corea)

Chick Corea and I at Blues AlleyI had the good fortune of attending the Chick Corea solo piano gig on April 9, 2014 at Blues Alley in Washington, DC.   I had been eagerly awaiting the evening since I am a Chick Corea aficionado.  I was not disappointed! See the nice Washington Post article by Michael J. West on the previous day’s concert.  In the following days, I reflected upon what makes me like his playing so much, and of course, I came to the conclusion that it was its “complexity”…

Really? Precisely!  Jazz is an exercise in complexity where many factors influence one another – the definition of complexity itself – to produce music that resonates as beauty in the listener’s mind.  First there is the score, guiding the player’s brain through the composition.  But somewhere, the jazz musician improvises, and lets the brain “fill in’ and elaborate on the basic road-map.  The current mood and the days events surely affect this improvisation phase.  Familiar themes may surface and are recalled, feeding into the stream of notes seemingly unconnected, progressing the score.  The audience reacts.  Chick’s brain provides instructions to his fingers, keeping rhythm and applying just the right force to each key.   The sound of the particular piano is interpreted in the payer’s brain, further affecting the playing.

Chick Corea, in my opinion, does it better than anyone else.  He has amazing technique and impeccable rhythm.  He weaves his own themes into each piece in intricate, surprising  and beautiful ways,  he interprets scores in creative fashion, and he remains faithful to the original piece.  He performed two amazing and difficult Thelonious Monk compositions that day, and graciously posed for a memorable photograph with me!  Thank you, Chick Corea 🙂

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The Price of Bitcoins: Chaos or Complexity?


If you are interested in Bitcoins, you will probably have noticed how volatile its value has been, in U.S. Dollars or in Euros. Just go to to take a look for yourself.  Bitcoin is the leading, but only one of many, so called altcoins or cryptocurrencies.  What is going on?  Is it chaos or complexity?   Or is it chaos that will eventually turn into a more stable complex behavior?  As David Snowden points out in his Cynefin Framework, chaos is often associated with emerging fields, where the system is subject to actions and reactions that may amplify its behavioral responses  over time.  This hyper-sensitivity to initial conditions, as it is referred in complexity lingo, is likely caused by traders reacting to positive and negative news, and a general lack of understanding of how the news will affect confidence in the system. After all, it is possible that Bitcoin will fail and that its value will drop to zero.  As Michel Baranger puts it:  Any small uncertainty that may exist in the initial conditions will grow exponentially with time, and eventually (very soon, in most cases) it will become so large that we will lose all useful knowledge of the state of the system.

On the other hand, some systems can learn, evolve and emerge towards a more stable complex system. Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, at Adelphi, defines emergence as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”.  So the Bitcoin marketplace may evolve towards a more predictable currency with levels of volatility comparable to the Dollar, the Euro or Gold.  In the case of Bitcoin, however, there is still a lot of ground to cover:  There are many new users who may be interested in speculation rather than trading; the ultimate theoretical number of Bitcoins is a function of its mathematics and estimated at 21 millions.  It is not clear how this will affect the value of the currency over time, as it is more widely used.  This is typical complexity, though: a growing number of agents impacting one another in ways that are difficult to predict.  Only one thing is for sure: buy low, sell high.

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