|Complexity: A Guided Tour
Hard Cover, 386 pages
Author: Melanie Mitchell
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Complexity: A Guided Tour is a wonderful introduction to the study of complexity, computation and information systems. The reader is guided, much as the title suggests, through a wide array of fields affected by the ongoing study of systems that don’t fit in nice little packages. The book is part scientific-lay-of-the-land, part history and part autobiography. It provides a framework for understanding how this science has developed in relation to other fields, while giving practical examples that a creative reader could immediately start playing with in their minds; those inclined could even begin “experimenting” with the concepts.
I enjoyed reading this book immensely. Mitchell’s style is wonderful – part student part mentor – guiding the reader through heady topics, but not afraid to say, “I don’t know…” when it is appropriate. I have found many “scientific” works to be dogmatic and unwavering; self-assured would be an understatement. Not so with this. It is aware of both complexity’s promise and its pitfalls, the work already accomplished and the road ahead. Mitchell presents science as almost a living organism in itself, one that slowly develops, sometimes making false steps, sometimes taking leaps and bounds forwards.
Topics covered include “Turing” machines, cellular automatons, economics, logistic maps, fractals and “chaos”, population dynamics, genetic algorithms, genetics, evolution and metabolic theory, to name a few. I by chance watched The Dark Knight immediately after finishing this, and was amazed at how that made sections of it come alive (specifically, the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a plot element). Very little math is required, though a good grasp of algebra and a love for patterns is helpful. In place of complicated proofs, I found lots of well-given descriptions of models, helpful illustrations and explanatory instructions that enabled the reader grasp where a model was going and how it emphasized or clarified the topic at hand.
Mitchell, also, is not afraid to step on toes. In particular, her handling of genetics and evolution theory are likely to create rancor on many sides. She denigrates those who denounce evolution for religious reasons, but gives no room for pride and arrogance in those who blindly assert that natural selection is the primary mover in evolutionary theory (The Modern Synthesis). With cogent examples and well-thought out critique, she presents science as a moving target, requiring both optimism and caution in all.
I give this book ★★★★☆. It is a book that is intensely self-aware; not going too far, yet not afraid to push the reader. I would especially target this book to those who enjoy algorithms, history and the quest for unifying principles (whether they exist or not!).