To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Part 5: Post 9: Complex Systems

It’s rained the past week, mostly, and it feels like a Fall rain. I can’t explain how. My friends back at my old college are starting classes again—they’re sophomores now. Since we don’t have distinct classes here, I guess I’ll never be a college sophomore. Not that I mind, I don’t think I’m missing out on anything that important, it’s just odd to think about. Here, the apples are coming in, bushels and bushels of apples. We’ve had apples before, but not like this. I still hear cicadas sometimes, and there are days when it’s still warm enough to bike down and swim at the lake, but I agree with Kit; it’s fall, now.

My birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and my mother asked me for my birthday list, where I want to go for dinner…part of me thinks I’m getting a bit old to let my mother orchestrate my birthday, but part of me also thinks I can be an adult the other 364 days of the year, so why not let her? Anyway, I like presents. 

And the semester continues. The fourth class I’m taking is called Complex Systems. It’s a physics class, the third one I’ve taken here. And it’s a bit different from the other ones I’ve taken. I mean, I’d never taken a physics class before this year, but I thought I knew what physics is. I basically thought it was about the stuff they write science fiction stories about—space and time and subatomic particles—and all that stuff came up in the first two physics classes I took. It was interesting, but it seemed a little remote. This is different. This is the physics of life.

Complex systems science is what I’d always thought was called chaos theory, not that I really knew what that was—I remember one of the characters in Jurassic Park was a “chaotician” and kept saying “life will find a way,” and otherwise making a lot of dark and snarky comments about the inadvisability of reviving dinosaurs. I’d gotten the idea that chaos theory meant studying things that are unpredictable, like the weather.

And it turns out that’s both exactly right and exactly wrong. Studying the weather does involve complex systems science, and on one level it is impossible to predict the weather exactly. But on another level, the weather is amazingly predictable. Like, we all know what a summer storm is like. We even know what those storms smell like. That’s not unpredictability. Turns out, I’m a complex system, too—no one knows exactly what I’m going to do next, but I’m predictably Daniel.

What I’d always thought science was, it turns out, is only half of science, what's called reductionism—the idea that you can thoroughly understand a thing by taking it apart and studying its pieces. And obviously that works, sometimes, but it seems kind of sterile. Like, I’ve always liked science, but I’m not sure I liked scientists—not that I knew any, but I imagined them as guys in white lab coats doing weird things to animals and having no social life…obviously, I didn’t think about any of this carefully, I’m not an idiot. But, thinking about it, reductionism is sterile. Because sterile things, by definition, are not alive—you sterilize things by killing all the live things on them. And reductionism is terrible at understanding life. If you take me apart, you won’t learn anything about me—I won’t be there anymore. 

Life, love, spirit, all these things have always been things science—reductionist—science couldn’t explain. I was raised with that, the idea that some things can’t be explained. But there’s this other strain of science that isn’t reductionist that’s been around all along, and complex systems science is part of that. At first, when the ally teaching the class said that, I wasn’t sure that I liked it. I thought maybe studying some things would make them less magical. But I think I was still thinking in terms of reductionism, sterility. Complex systems science is not sterile, because complex systems, by definition, cannot be sterile.  We’re spending most of the class just trying to wrap our heads around what a complex system is-- complex systems are things that are more than the sum of their parts, and that more only exists while the system functions. When the system stops functioning, something is lost—so they can die. So maybe they’re alive. I mean, I’m alive, but hurricanes and ecosystems are also complex systems. Since they can die, maybe they’re alive. They cannot be precisely predicted, so maybe they have free will.

I’ve read people talking about quantum physics as inherently magical, but we talked about that last semester in Einstein and Atom, and it seemed clear to me that isn’t right. Things work differently at the quantum level—that’s kind of the whole point of quantum physics—so the fact that an electron can disappear over here and immediately appear over there without traveling from one place to another doesn’t mean that a whole person can teleport. But I’m starting to think that maybe complex systems science is magical—that magic is not separate from the rest of the world.

I saw a phoebe today, in the lilacs by the old nest. It perched there for a minute or so, flew down to the ground and caught something I couldn't see, and flew away. Maybe it was one of the chicks, back for a moment to see the place where it started out.

[Next Post: Connections]

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