Science yearning for rules in a world of change…

re: Feb 14 2009 Science News – editor’s comment

Editor Tom Siegfried’s comment emphasizes that the main subject of science is understanding a world of change, but one might not know that from asking scientists.

Scientists have built their whole culture around finding fixed rules for things.    We call it “determinism” and the whole community is so set in its ways it still only adjusts the standard fixed rules by adding a little random variation to explain why things of the past keep changing the rules they work by.

Even after half a century of all fields intensely studying how complex systems evolve, we are still not publicly acknowledging that they do.

Complex systems frequently have independently changing individual parts, that express new behavior in new situations, and we keep following our rules of the past for them. That seems just disgraceful!

If nature is not rigid, somehow, so why should we be?  Studying flexible  forms might even profit from a little flexibility, allowing us to begin to observe nature’s own remarkable ways of doing it.  We might spend time watching to see how natural phenomena gracefully transition from one explanatory regime to another, for example, or how systems diverge from previously expected paths to invent or discover completely new ones.

That would mean doing the unthinkable, though, looking at the world “backward” and studying the “misbehavior” of our experiments as revealing of truth rather than study their “consistencies” and just discard the data pointing to how systems are exploring other possibilities.

Diverging behaviors come from systems that have independent parts, and cannot be approximated by systems with controlled parts plus noise.    With natural system divergence new rules develop and the old ones are no longer there.  That’s really the definition of ‘change’, something quite radical.

That nature is a persistently upsetting rule maker of that sort could be looked at from one end of the scientist’s telescope as a great irritant. From the other end it’s a great opportunity and invitation for new science, an open ended evolving and adaptive new science.     You just can’t get much of anyone to talk about it though, because it bucks the traditions, makes all the terminology seem confused, and is widely taken as if a threat to the established social culture.

The fact that most of the rules of economics need to change when the responsiveness of the earth to technology switches from multiplying returns to diminishing returns is an absolute gold mine for the new complexity physics of natural systems, though. That’s real, and important to look into.

Even the most early findings could even do some real good, right now.    It seems unlikely though, sadly.

Best, Phil Henshaw           ¸¸¸¸.·´ ¯ `·.¸¸¸¸


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