Geoffrey West on complexity (and a sad goodbye to Steve Jobs)

As I was sitting down after dinner this evening news came through the interwebs that Steve Jobs had passed away.  Given that he had lived seven years with a form of pancreatic cancer, it’s pretty amazing he made it this far.  As cantankerous as he was – and whether you love or hate Apple products – you can’t deny that he changed the world of personal electronics.  He was a true visionary.

Anyway, on to other matters.  At the recent FQXi conference on time I had the pleasure of sharing a Zodiac with Geoffrey West while bouncing around Åbyfjorden, Sweden (the patch under my ear in the picture below is what kept me from vomiting all over Geoffrey).  Anyhow, he gave what I think was my favorite talk at the conference.  I’ve linked to it below the picture (and note that if you catch site of me around 34 minutes or so, I am not sleeping!).  It is worth a watch.  In fact I think it ought to be required watching for just about anyone.  It’s solidified my intention to start doing more research in complexity theory.  I think physics provides the perfect means by which complexity can be studied, meaning that its reductionist methods tend to be ideal for solving complex problems – take it apart and put it back together again, piece by piece.  Anyway, watch the video.

Here’s the video:

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3 Responses to “Geoffrey West on complexity (and a sad goodbye to Steve Jobs)”

  1. A barrier to the marriage of physics and complexity might be the fermion sign problem. Complexity probably involves (complexity and emergence together probably involve) processes of strong interaction as well as reductively analyzable stuff. Good pieces by Jan Zaanen (there are a few important physicists around who don’t belong to FQXi):

    http://www.lorentz.leidenuniv.nl/~jan/perspquantumcrit.pdf

    http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1941.toc

  2. quantummoxie Says:

    > there are a few important physicists around who don’t belong to
    > FQXi

    Indeed, I work with several.

    As for the marriage of physics and complexity, I’m not so sure I completely agree, but I’ve got an open mind about it. Nevertheless, I think there’s already been a considerable amount of progress on this.

  3. West says (my takeaway) and documents per the general SFI systems approach, that you have lots of tantalizing quantifiable correspondences between varied physical systems (individual and networked organisms, cities, enterprises etc.). This is philosophically exciting, legitimately thought-provoking even if not entirely new. It is impressive that he’s a physicist before he’s any kind of systems theorist. He’s a brilliant and charismatic guy. I love his vocabulary. I bet some people hate him, which makes me like him even more. But if, when you were out there on that dingy with him, you got input genuinely leading to this:

    “I think physics provides the perfect means by which complexity can be studied, meaning that its reductionist methods tend to be ideal for solving complex problems – take it apart and put it back together again, piece by piece –”

    he may be full of one of his favorite descriptive terms. Fact: there has been no progress at all in overcoming the bugbear of condensed matter physics – which basically means contemporary physics beyond the coherent QM realm – i.e., the sign problem of strong fermionic interaction. West talks about biology as the paradigm of the new century. Nothing may turn out to be more true. But the physics of life is condensed matter physics. The physics of life is comprised of processes that can only, in the final analysis, be described statistically – not stochastically simulated in Monte Carlo fashion: only statistically limned. As Zaanen points out, in the sign realm no mathematical handle exists: in computational complexity terms, these processes are NP-hard.

    Anyway, how can you describe and understand and correlate in any detailed, useful manner the lifelines of individual organisms, species, habitations, commercial enterprises – their hierarchical complexity, their emergence – when you can’t even simulate protein folding and quite possibly never will be able to do so?

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