Zen Faulkes explains how an issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics dedicated to chaos theory ended up running an anti-feminist screed that reportedly claimed that “half the children of working mothers suffered ‘serious psychological damage.'”
The article was penned by Gordon Freeman (pictured), who was the guest editor of this one issue of the journal. It was pretty obvious what had happened, in broad strokes: he abused his editorial power to get his poisonous opinion piece into the pages of the journal.
The details of exactly how this happened were a little more complicated. Freeman organized a conference on chaos theory, and was assembling papers that had been presented at a conference for publication in the Canadian Journal of Physics. Apparently, the deal was that the journal would publish all the papers Freeman compiled, provided that they were presented at the conference, and that they were peer-reviewed.
Rock star data scientist Nate Silver wrote a long article on meteorology for the New York Times:
Why are weather forecasters succeeding when other predictors fail? It’s because long ago they came to accept the imperfections in their knowledge. That helped them understand that even the most sophisticated computers, combing through seemingly limitless data, are painfully ill equipped to predict something as dynamic as weather all by themselves. So as fields like economics began relying more on Big Data, meteorologists recognized that data on its own isn’t enough.
Tom Henderson, author of the forthcoming book Punk Mathematics, will keynote EsoZone Portland 2011 on November 18th at p:ear. Admission is free. Tom’s talk is tentatively titled “Time, Space, and the Self are Illusions – So Do ‘You’ Wanna Go ‘Out’ with ‘Me’ ‘Tonight’?” He’ll cover:
Mining your history for strategy
Your eigenself and “you”
Using the howling void beyond your epsilon of consciousness for a good time
Tom has a masters in mathematics from Portland State University. According to the Kickstarter page for his book:
Punk Mathematics will be a series of mathematical stories. It is written for readers who are interested in having their minds expanded by the strange metaphors and implications of mathematics, even if they’re not always on friendly terms with equations. Better living through probability; the fractal dimension of cities and cancers; using orders of magnitude to detect bullshit; free will and quantum economics; and the mathematics of cooperation in a networked world on the brink of a No Future collapse.
EsoZone Portland 2011 will take place over the course of November 18th and 19th. It will include a few pre-scheduled presentations, workshops and performances along with ample free space for ad-hoc “unconference” sessions in the style of BarCamp or Bird of a Feather.
The results of Geoffrey von Maltzahn et al. in their Nature Materials publication reveal that nanoparticles that communicate with each other can deliver more than 40-fold higher doses of chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs) to tumors than nanoparticles that do not communicate can deliver. These results show the potential for nanoparticle communication to amplify drug delivery over that achievable by nanoparticles that work alone, similar to how insect swarms perform better as a group than the individual insects do on their own.
Great new interview with Nassim Taleb by one of his former teachers at Wharton:
Taleb: The events in the Middle East are not black swans. They were predictable to those who know the region well. At most, they were gray swans or perhaps white swans. One of the lessons of “Wild vs. Mild Randomness,” my chapter with Benoit Mandelbrot in your book, is what happens before you go into a period of wild randomness. You will find a long quiet period that is punctuated with absolute total turmoil…. In The Black Swan, I discussed Saudi Arabia as a prime case of the calm before the storm and the Great Moderation [the perceived end of economic volatility due to the creation of 20th century banking laws] in the same breath. I was comparing Italy with Saudi Arabia. Italy is an example of mild randomness in comparison with Saudi Arabia and Syria, which are examples of wild randomness. Italy has had 60 changes in regime in the post-war era, but they are inconsequential…. It is a prime example of noise. It’s very Italian and so it’s elegant noise, but it’s noise nonetheless. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and Syria have had the same regime in place for 40 some years. You may think it is stability, but it’s not. Once you remove the lid, the thing explodes.
The same kind of thing happens in finance. Take the portfolio of banks. The environment seemed very placid — the Great Moderation — and then the thing explodes.
Herring: I would agree that people knew the Middle East was very vulnerable to turmoil because of the demographics, a very young population, and widespread unemployment, the dissatisfaction with the distribution of income and with regimes that were getting geriatric. But knowing how it would unfold and knowing that somebody immolating themselves in a market in Tunisia would lead to this widespread discontent — and we still don’t know how it will end — is a really remarkable occurrence that I think would be very difficult to predict in any way.
Taleb: Definitely, and it actually taught us to try not to predict the catalyst, which is the most foolish thing in the world, but to try to identify areas of vulnerability. [It’s] like saying a bridge is fragile. I can’t predict which truck is going to break it, so I have to look at it more in a structural form — what physicists call the percolation approach. You study the terrain. You don’t study the components. You see in finance, we study the random walk. Physicists study percolation. They study the terrain — not a drunk person walking around — but the evolution of the terrain itself. Everything is dynamic. That is percolation.
And then you learn not to try to predict which truck is going to break that bridge. But you just look at bridges and say, “Oh, this bridge doesn’t have a great foundation. This other one does. And this one needs to be reinforced.” We can do a lot with the notion of robustness.
I dug ever so slightly deeper into why I love the Master, the Alan Moore archive site I mentioned recently, and found another rare gem: the long lost Big Numbers # 3. It’s actually been up since March, 2009 – I don’t know this has escaped me for so long.
After Bill Sienkiewicz quit Big Numbers after completing two issues and beginning a third, Tundra hired Sienkiewicz’s assistant Al Columbia to complete the project. Columbia finished issue 3 and part of issue 4, but then, well, something happened. Issues 3 & 4was long thought destroyed, but it turns out that photocopies of 3 surfaced on eBay last year and are now available for your reading pleasure, with the blessing of Moore (but not necessarily Columbia and Sienkiewicz).
Benoît B. Mandelbrot, a maverick mathematician who developed an innovative theory of roughness and applied it to physics, biology, finance and many other fields, died on Thursday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 85.
His death was caused by pancreatic cancer, his wife, Aliette, said. He had lived in Cambridge.
Regular readers of this site may have noticed a large number of posts on this site credited to “Social Physicist” – the Twitter handle of Kyle Findlay (and yes, you could be forgiven for confusing our names). Kyle works for a group within one of the world’s largest market research companies, which he describes as a “mini-think tank” with the purpose of exposing people to new ways of thinking and doing things. Having enjoyed his Twitter stream for the past year or so, I got in touch with Kyle Findlay to ask him about the practice of “social physics.” He talked to me by instant message from from his home in Cape Town, South Africa.
Klint Finley: What, as a “social physicist,” do you actually do?
Kyle Findlay: Well, at the moment I’m on my own in this “field,” if you can call it that. It just seems like the best description of what I do and what interests me so hopefully it sticks.
Basically, my interest is in understanding how people act as groups. As emergent entities that have their own (hopefully) predictable and describable topological forms. That’s the lofty idea anyway. And the tools of chaos theory, systems theory, network theory, physics, mathematics, etc. help describe this.
Do you have a background in physical sciences?
None at all. I studied “business science” at the University of Cape Town. My first job was for a company with a strong academic background, started by a professor of religion and a statistician. They used a 5-dimensional catastrophe cusp model to describe people’s relationships with ideas.
The moment I was exposed to this thinking, something clicked. A lot of contradictions that I saw in the world around me were resolved. Ever since I have had an insatiable desire to understand these areas. Which led me to interact with experts in many disciplines from neuroscience to economics, math, physics, AI, ecology, biology, etc. Every field has a piece of the puzzle. I am lucky to work in an environment that gives me free rein to indulge my passion.
Do you think what you do is different from systems thinking or social cybernetics?
They are definitely components. Systems thinking is a broad umbrella term. Cybernetics definitely helps us to understand and describe the patterns and multi-dimensional shapes that society creates. But I think that you need the hard sciences like math and physics to really get at the heart of it. Which is why I am feverishly trying to catch up on many years of missing education.
Do you think there are any dangers in applying models designed for physical systems to human behavior?
Yes there are – you will always be at least slightly wrong. There are a lot of parallels between the way people act in groups and other types of particles. But you also have the same problems of predictability in complex systems: sensitivity to initial conditions, 3-body problem, etc. It’s kind of the paradox of it all, something I am still trying to come to grips with.
What’s the most surprising insight you’ve discovered since you started studying this?
Everything is the same and everything is just information. The universal nature of nature is astounding. You see the familiar signs everywhere: from the atomic through to the cosmic level. It makes me think that there really is only one true science or line of inquiry and that most specialised fields are just facets of this. The more fields I delve into, the more commonalities I discover. It’s become par for the course for me now I think. But in the beginning, it really blew my mind.
Have you been able to apply this stuff in any interesting ways? For example, I know you’ve prepared presentations on network theory and power laws for work.
Those have gone down really well within the silos I work in. People have really been amazed when I’ve shown them these kinds of things. It gets their minds racing.
I’m also doing some work applying systems theory to sports science, which can really benefit from changing the way they view the human body. Music is another area that makes a lot more sense from this point of view.
One of my favourites is understanding how human attention works and how to synchronise communication so that it becomes internalized, but that is very theoretical and could be seen as slightly Machiavellian so I won’t go there.
Also, I’ve been having some interesting chats with a neuroscientist around decision-making, attention, etc. The applications are really endless, it’s just where you choose to focus you own attention.
How would you suggest someone interested get started studying social physics?
Well, considering I’m not 100% sure what falls into the bounds of the field myself, it’s difficult to say. There’s no university course for it as far as I know. I would say that you need to have an intense desire to understand why people do what they do. And a slightly perverse fascination with the human condition. Looking at life from a systems perspective is a good start. Understand that patterns are formed internally, that change is the only constant. You can then use tools like network theory, noise analysis, entropy, etc. to understand these ebbs and flows.
Yes, I know of Stephen Wolfram from his software and Wolfram Alpha. I’ve been intimidated by the size of his book, though. I struggle justifying devoting so much time to one book, which probably says more about me…
Yeah, I haven’t picked it up yet either.
He sounds like a really bright guy. I think I watched a talk of his at the Singularity Summit or somewhere similar, but to be honest, can’t remember much of it.
Most of my reading is in the scientific literature, interspersed with a good book or graphic novel.
Speaking of which, do you know of any works of fiction that demonstrate the principles you’re interested in?
Good question. Not too many spring to mind. A classic is Flatland by Edwin Abbot – the quintessential metaphor for perceiving multiple dimensions. The guy wrote a book about perceiving multiple dimensions in the 1800s! Impressive.
A recent book that blew my mind was Accelerando by Charles Stross. He has a great worldview but his insights were more in terms of extrapolating the directions technology is going in.
It was co-written by Fritjof Capra and consists of several characters discussing the nature of the world from a systems perspective. I have to admit that i fell asleep during it… but I was very tired.
That sounds pretty amazing though.
Yeah – good credentials right there.
My personal favourites are any films or books that push society’s limits. Subversive materials rule in my book (no pun intended). Anything that helps me push back my pre-conceptions and shatter my expectations. They were great at that in the 70s, in music, film and literature. Probably a side-effect of the 60s experimentations. I’m a big fan of exploitation flicks.
Let’s see, what else… I haven’t read Alan Moore’s Big Numbers. But Moore seems to have a pretty good grasp on complexity, judging by Watchmen and From Hell.
I haven’t read Big Numbers either. What elements do you think he draws on in those books?
Watchmen itself seems to be very mathematical – the use of symmetry and so on. In terms of themes, maybe it doesn’t touch on this stuff much, apart from some of Dr. Manhattan’s comments.
Yeah, he definitely weaves a non-linear richness into his tales that is admirable. The way he weaves the various threads of a story together.
I forget why I thought From Hell was relevant. Maybe it’s not.
Also, he calls himself a chaos magician. Watching an interview with him a while back, I could actually identify with a lot of what he was saying.
I wasn’t going to go there, but… have you studying chaos magic or the occult at all?
No I haven’t. That Moore interview is probably as far as I have gone. It’s just not a direction I feel I can go in and remain “grounded” if I want other researchers to take me seriously. But I can definitely see how he got there.
Well, I have and I think you’re better off studying natural sciences, systems, and complexity IMHO.
[Laughs] Cool, thanks for the advice.
But the book Techgnosis by Erik Davis examines a lot of parallels between information theory and cybernetics and mysticism and the occult. I think it stands up pretty well, even if you’re not interested in magic.
I think you have to have a certain detachment to take a step back and observe the world. And when you start seeing everything as inter-related and part of the same thread it becomes easier to start imagining that you can define the tapestry with your perceptions. I guess I don’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. In my view it untethers you. Again, talking from an inexperienced point of view in this area.
Davis’ book sounds interesting though.
From an interview with Manuel DeLanda (who you might be interested in) -conducted by Davis, incidentally:
As Deleuze says, “Always keep a piece of fresh land with you at all times.” Always keep a little spot where you can go back to sleep after a day of destratification. Always keep a small piece of territory, otherwise you’ll go nuts.
Yeah exactly. I find that the concepts I deal with in my day job challenge me enough, and that’s all based on empirically grounded ‘fact’ in the scientific literature.
Most people work very hard to maintain their reality, but I do think that you have to have an affinity towards detachment. A certain world view that is open to having your illusions shattered and actually enjoying that experience. And the cutting edge of science delivers those experiences in spades.
The term “systems thinking” has a few different connotations. Classically, non-linear dynamic systems represents a set of principles that describe the organization of energy as an extropic function of information, driven by power laws and bounded by limits. The formulas within this domain are often applied to natural systems such as populations, fluid dynamics, and so-called chaotic processes like dripping faucets and epileptic seizures. Some of the better-known ideas within dynamic systems are attractors, bifurcations, and the process of iteration.
More broadly, systems thinking refers to a widening perspective when studying networked domains. For example, the recent trends in Life Cycle Analysis in product design & manufacturing attempts to go beyond the material & energetic costs of the physical object – eg a plastic bottle of water – to consider every aspect of its life cycle from sourcing all of materials and manufacturing support, cost of shipping, human impact of the workers, environmental impact, and end-of-life in a landfill or recycling depot. Wal-Mart, to its credit, has made great strides across its supply chain by optimizing efficiency in the life cycle of the many products that end up on its shelves and in people’s lives. Some of these solutions can be a simple and radical as redesigning packaging for minimal materials use and shipping weight.
Recently, systems thinking has been applied to the design process suggesting that designers are uniquely empowered to engineer powerful solutions for complex problems in ways that benefit many different human and non-human stakeholders, eg nature is a primary stakeholder, as are future generations saddled with our often myopic creations.
I tend to use systems thinking to describe all of these connotations rolled up into a general way of looking at the world that goes beyond what is immediately visible and reaches into the extended connections and unseen impacts within a domain. In some respects, this way of thinking is a natural part of simply paying attention to things. In other ways, it’s a challenging and sometimes overwhelming course of study that can easily move from Aha! moments to a very dis-empowering sense of total non-determinism. In the face of such huge complexity it can seem impossible to make any actionable sense of things. Finding the balance and determining the appropriate scope of research in analyzing a domain is a critical skill that must be developed individually through practice, lest you tug on that thread and find you’ve unraveled the entire sweater.
Some resources to get you thinking about the micro & macro of complex systems:
Complexity: a Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. A great, thorough introduction to complexity and systems thinking. Beginner to intermediate. Don’t be scared by the equations – there’s lot’s of good info here. “Readers will marvel at the sheer range of settings in which complex systems operate: from ant hills to the stock market, from T cells to Web searches, from disease epidemics to power outages, complexity challenges theorists’ intellectual adroitness. With refreshing clarity, Mitchell invites nonspecialists to share in these researchers’ adventures in recognizing and measuring complexity and then predicting its cascading effects.”
Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness by John Briggs. A solid introduction to systems, chaos, and wholeness. “Briggs and Peat look at how chaos theory has also influenced other scientific disciplines, offering a model, for example, for understanding the human brain and developing computer systems for artificial intelligence. The book’s chapter heading quotations from Chinese Taoist texts and Alice in Wonderland are clues that readers are being led into abstruse territory. But encouraging readers to appreciate nuances of truth rather than to seek a reductionist version of truth may be what chaos theory–and this book–is all about.”
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra. A great analysis of how complexity and non-linearity inform the foundations of our natural world. “…brilliant synthesis of such recent scientific breakthroughs as the theory of complexity, Gaia theory, chaos theory, and other explanations of the properties of organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. Capra’s surprising findings stand in stark contrast to accepted paradigms of mechanism and Darwinism and provide an extraordinary new foundation for ecological policies that will allow us to build and sustain communities without diminishing the opportunities for future generations.”
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. An excellent general introduction to smart design and life cycle analysis that advocates for both prosperity and sustainability. “…the authors present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would render both traditional manufacturing and traditional environmentalism obsolete. The authors, an architect and a chemist, want to eliminate the concept of waste altogether, while preserving commerce and allowing for human nature.”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. A highly-readable & engaging study of the vast, interconnected, and interdependent systems of agriculture, energy, and the journey of food to our plate.
Systems Science, a blog series by George Mobus. Scroll down (and go back a page) to start at “Systems Science, Part 1.” Mobus provides a good overview of systems theory.
Finally, just start training yourself to look beyond the visible, to follow connections, and to think in more holistic terms when considering the larger interconnections at play in all domains. Consider, for example, all of the machines, organizations, people, and processes that contributed to your dinner tonight. Nothing is as simple as it seems yet, often, there are very simple rules underlying their complexity.
HAVE you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?
Actually, no. In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.
Neuroscientists have long suspected as much. Only recently, however, have they come up with proof that brains work this way. Now they are trying to work out why. Some believe that near-chaotic states may be crucial to memory, and could explain why some people are smarter than others.