I wrote a few weeks ago about my visit to a conference on high-performance computing and big data [see ‘Mining Data‘ on February 12th, 2014]. We are able to use high performance computers to create simulations of complex engineering systems before we embark on the usual costly, and sometimes catastrophic, construction of the real system. Some complex systems exhibit emergent behaviour, meaning that although we understand and can model the individual components when we connect them together the system behaves a new and unexpected manner, which is why it is good practice to simulate a system before building it. Manuel Delanda has written eloquently on the topic of emergence in simulations in The Emergence of Synthetic Reason. I encourage my first year thermodynamics students to read at least the first chapter which an amazing tour-de-force that ranges effortless from spontaneous flows of energy at the molecular level to the formation of thunderstorm systems.
Nature has many systems that could be described as emergent at some level or other. For instance, the ants in an anthill go about their simple interactions but have no idea about how the anthill works or, perhaps more amazingly, the rafts that an ant colony can form using their bodies during a flood, as shown in recent research by Jessica Purcell and her co-workers at the University of Lausanne. With the exception of the queen, there is no leader in an anthill and all of the ants appear to be equal. The same is not true in human society where currently 1% of the population own nearly half of the world’s wealth.
Seven out of ten people live in a country where inequality has increased in the last 30 years according to a recent Oxfam report. This is bad news for everyone, including the wealthy because Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett have shown that in developed countries, there is a correlation between the incidences of mental illnesses and the level of income difference between the rich and poor. A more recent study of the US found that depression was more common in states with greater income inequality, after taking account of age, income and educational differences. Wilson and Pickett conclude that we become less nice and less happy people in more unequal societies regardless of our position in the social spectrum.