Monday, December 31, 2012

Geoffrey West on From Alpha to Omega

An excellent summary of Prof. West's research into complexity theory and the scaling laws that determine the lifetimes of both biological organisms and socioeconomic systems. I have referred to his work here to try to explain why large-scale, hierarchically organized socioeconomic systems (cities, economies, nation-states, etc.) exhibit superexponential growth, for a time, but then inevitably run out of resources, be they fossil fuels, fresh water and farmland or fresh ideas and cultural innovations, and collapse.

For those of you who are justifiably wary of mathematical models, please understand that this is different. These are not attempts to model one complex system using another complex system, such as the models used by economists and climate scientists. (The climate models are far from worthless, but they do seem to have significantly underestimated the effects of anthropogenic climate change, while the models the economists use are in fact complete garbage.) Prof. West uses simple math, which takes into account such basic elements as the dimensionality of spacetime and the fractality of networks, to make accurate predictions about the behavior of complex systems.


Incidentally, in listening to this podcast I found out that Prof. West and I both left the field of high-energy physics for the same general reason: the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider experiment, which can certainly be viewed as a collapse of a complex socioeconomic system. The project got canned as the size of its budget showed signs of approaching a singularity. From collapse to collapse, if you will—from alpha to omega.

Oh, and Happy New Year to all 19,469 of you who have visited this blog over the past month, as well the rest of my 991,615 visitors, should any of you decide to stop by.

10 comments:

ward said...

Happy New Year to you too D.O.

beetleswamp said...

Happy New Year Dmitir. Saw you on the Druid Report last week!

knutty knitter said...

Ditto :)

viv in nz

JimK said...

Rent's Rule, a power law in the microelectronics world, is another manifestation of large networks

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent's_rule

Joe said...

Happy New Year, Dmitry.

A few basic concepts in macroeconomics are useful, for example, the relationship between supply and demand. Most else of it is pretty much a waste.

Patrick said...

Geoffrey West lost me when he stated that preindustrial man "lived 30 - 40 years" and uses this to, in part, bolster his other observations. Life expectancy has been, for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years roughly in the 70 to 100-year range for those who reached maturity. Where so many get it wrong (and I was surprised in this case) is that the AVERAGE life span has been much lower in the past because of high infant mortality. Average a one-day-old baby with a 70-year-old and you essentially cut 70 in half.

Vyse Legendaire said...

@ patrick.

That may be true, but keep in mind that Dr. West is describing 'pre-socioeconomic' humans, which presumably would reach back much farther than even thousands of years, likely to 10s or 100s of thousands.

HeyZeus said...

Dmitry... with all due respect to Dr. West's insights, the Santa Fe institute including Dr. Wests' group is now in the clutches of exactly the kind of TED inspired techno-narcissism that keeps them from seeing reality eye to eye and drawing the same implications as you've drawn from their work. For instance, the cities group now leans towards the idea that the larger a city is, the more "efficient" it is, hence "greener" and more "sustainable". Also, the entire focus has shifted from respecting the opacity of complexity to trying to model complex phenomenon using bigger data sets and higher no. of variables. In my opinion, the primary lesson to learn from our growing understanding of complexity is that the age of "modeling" and predictivity is over and rather we should focus on trying to make our systems 'antifragile' as Taleb says to events we cannot predict (for instance by embracing anarchy). I was sorely disappointed during my stay in Santa Fe and in some ways found myself excommunicated when I tried to draw the connections that you, Taleb, Barabasi and others have already drawn. But I guess I shouldn't have expected better. One of the tragedies of complexity science is that leading practitioners increasingly come from an area (physics) where the primary lessons of complexity (i.e. lack of predictability) is anathema to the very idea of what 'science' means. While they understand properties like emergence, they don't feel they've done science, unless they've fitted data to a model and made predictions. I no longer expect anything meaningful to come out of anywhere in academia. The techno-worship there is a religion now that can't be overturned.

Patrick said...

Vyse: I'm not even sure what "pre-socioeconomic" really means (which is why I interpreted it in my comment as the more common "pre-industrial." What is your definition for this term? Even hunter gatherers have social arrangements and economies.

Rick said...

HeyZeus -- can you recommend any complexity writings (books blogs papers) that capture your view so I can read more about it? Thx.