Tag Archives: emergence

Storm in a computer

Decorative painting of a stormy seascapeAs part of my undergraduate course on thermodynamics [see ‘Change in focus’ on October 5th, 2022) and in my MOOC on Thermodynamics in Everyday Life [See ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016], I used to ask students to read Chapter 1 ‘The Storm in the Computer’ from Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason by Manuel Delanda.  It is a mind-stretching read and I recommended that students read it at least twice in order to appreciate its messages.  To support their learning, I provided them with a précis of the chapter that is reproduced below in a slightly modified form.

At the start of the chapter, the simplest emergent properties, such as the temperature and pressure of a body of water in a container, are discussed [see ‘Emergent properties’ on September 16th, 2015].  These properties are described as emergent because they are not the property of a single component of the system, that is individual water molecules but are features of the system as a whole.  They arise from an objective averaging process for the billions of molecules of water in the container.  The discussion is extended to two bodies of water, one hot and one cold brought into contact within one another.  An average temperature will emerge with a redistribution of molecules to create a less ordered state.  The spontaneous flow of energy, as temperature differences cancel themselves, is identified as an important driver or capability, especially when the hot body is continually refreshed by a fire, for instance.  Engineers harness energy gradients or differences and the resultant energy flow to do useful work, for instance in turbines.

However, Delanda does not deviate to discuss how engineers exploit energy gradients.  Instead he identifies the spontaneous flow of molecules, as they self-organise across an energy gradient, as the driver of circulatory flows in the oceans and atmosphere, known as convection cells.  Five to eight convections cells can merge in the atmosphere to form a thunderstorm.  In thunderstorms, when the rising water vapour becomes rain, the phase transition from vapour to liquid releases latent heat or energy that helps sustain the storm system.  At the same time, gradients in electrical charge between the upper and lower sections of the storm generate lightening.

Delanda highlights that emergent properties can be established by elucidating the mechanisms that produce them at one scale and these emergent properties can become the components of a phenomenon at a much larger scale.  This allows scientists and engineers to construct models that take for granted the existence of emergent properties at one scale to explain behaviour at another, which is called ‘mechanism-independence’.  For example, it is unnecessary to model molecular movement to predict heat transfer.  These ideas allow simulations to replicate behaviour at the system level without the need for high-fidelity representations at all scales.  The art of modelling is the ability to decide what changes do, and what changes do not, make a difference, i.e., what to include and exclude.

Source:

Manuel Delanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason, Continuum, London, 2011.

Image: Painting by Sarah Evans owned by the author.

Blinded by reductionism

I wrote about the weakness of reductionism about 18 months ago [see ‘Reduction in usefulness of reductionism‘ on February 17th, 2021].  Reductionism is the concept that everything about a complex system can be understood by reducing it to the smallest constituent part.  The concept is flawed because complex systems exhibit emergent properties [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015] that appear at a certain level of complexity but do not exist at lower levels.  Life is an emergent property so when you reduce an organism to its constituent parts, for instance by dissection, you kill it and are unable to observe its normal behaviour.  Reductionism is widespread in Western science and has been blinding us to what is often well-known to aboriginal people, i.e., the interconnectedness of nature.  One example is forest ecosystems that Suzanne Simard, amongst others, has shown are complex synergistic, multi-scale organisations of species. Complexity is only hard for those who have not thought about it – it is obvious to many peoples whose lives are integrated in nature’s ecosystem but it is really difficult for those of us educated in the reductionist tradition.

Reference:

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Penguin, 2021.

Exploiting complexity to help society adapt

photograph of a flower for decorative purposes onlyI am worried that engineering has become a mechanism for financial returns in an economic system that values profit above everything with the result that many engineers are unwittingly, or perhaps in a few cases wittingly, supporting the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few capitalists.  At the start of the industrial revolution, when engineering innovation started to make a difference to the way we live and work, very few engineers foresaw the impact on the planet of the large scale provision to society of products and services.  Nowadays most engineers understand the consequences for the environment of their work; however, many feel powerless to make substantial changes often because they are constrained by the profit-orientated goals of their employer or feel that they play a tiny role in a complex system.  Complex systems are often characterised by self-organisation in which order appears without any centralised control or planning and by adaptation to change and experience.  Such systems are familiar to many engineers and perhaps they do not, but should, think of the engineering profession as complex system capable of adaptation and self-organisation in which the actions and decisions of individual engineers will cause the emergence of a new order. Our individual impact might be tiny but by acting we influence others to act and the cumulative effect will emerge in ways that no one can predict – that’s emergence for you.