on February 16, 2001
The title of this book is slightly misleading, as it implies it is about chaos, complexity and simplicity.
In fact the first half of the book is a guided tour of biology, chemisty and physics. Covering how these great sciences got where they are today, from Newton to Darwin, DNA to the lattice structure of diamonds.
The second half then presents a new way to look at science. Rather then delving inside something to find underlying rules, we should view things in context.
For example, traditionally the law of gravity is seen as the underlying principle that explains planetary motion. Cohen and Stewart argue that it is just a rule (of thumb?) that fits the facts, and that there is no LAW of gravity.
It seems a subtle distinction, but on reading this book it is quite an important one, and it has certainly given me a different view of the world.
Very intelligent and always interesting, this book is written for the layman and is always at pains to explains matters thoroughly and use every possible analogy to help get ideas across.
This book is worth twice the money for the first half alone - a perfect primer for those interested in science, but who dont want to get technical.
Cohen and Stewart are high level experts in their respective fields, and yet they write simply and lucidly, resulting in a desire to read further.
on March 15, 1997
In their preface, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart describe this book as "a streamlined introduction to the central preoccupations of modern science." The concepts of chaos, complexity, and simplicity are central to the book; they are presented without jargon and with marvelous analogies and examples. Much of the discussion of complexity focuses on life, especially human life and human intelligence. An especially useful concept they introduce is the "brain pun," the human brain's tendency to see similarity (bird wings and bat wings) and infer causality or relationship.
This book is remarkable in how much it teaches the intelligent layperson. For example, frog DNA is more complicated than ours because it incorporates so many instructions to the tadpole on how to mature under a wide range of temperature conditions. Human embryos don't need an instruction book with a huge chapter entitled "Coping with Temperature Changes," because we initially grow in the marvelously temperature-controlled environment of the womb. Did you know that? I didn't.
Speaking of instruction books - Cohen and Stewart clearly show that the instruction book metaphor for DNA is flawed. Only a fraction of human DNA is meaningful; the rest is "junk." (Same for other species - it's life, not just us.) But junk DNA replicates, too. Also, for most species in the real world, a wide variety of gene patterns produce pretty much the same animal. Did you know any of this? I didn't.
This is an ideal book for the intelligent layperson whose taste runs to the "readable but accurate." At 443 pages plus notes in the paperback version, it's plenty long enough for a coast-to-coast flight, with some left over for the next day. Highly recommended; I can't wait to pass it on to friends.
on February 1, 1997
If you are one of those who used to read Asimov's
or Arthur C. Clarke's "science fact" books get this book. You will especially enjoy it if you have an interest in evolution and/or to see the "tunnel vision" mistakes of people who are generally regarded as geniuses.
I learned more in reading this book than ANY non classroom
textbook and more than most classroom texts. And it's as easy to read as anything could be, considering the subject matter.
You should have some background in science, or it might be a little tough to get through.
All in all a great book.
on May 4, 2008
Jack Cohen is a biologist and Ian Stewart is a mathematician. It is interesting to see the impact of chaos theory and complexity theory to their specialized areas. This book represents thoughts beyond the new science made popular by James Gleick in his far reaching book Chaos: Making a New Science, in which his description of Edward Lorenz's notion of Butterfly Effect dramatically altered the perception of many people from a orderly world to a chaotic world. The overwhelmingly numerous occurring phenomenon of chaos in nature was brought to the attention of the scientific circle. Chaos was found to be actually complexity beyond the comprehension of our mind but there is also naturally emerging simplicity out of the complexity. The collapse of chaos is the path of the development of our thinking from chaos/complexity towards simplicity. The opening of the book presents the intertwining phenomenon of complexity and simplicity.
The first half of the book is devoted to explaining the current reductionist paradigm by which cosmology, evolution and human intelligence are the consequences of lower level and simpler theories of quantum mechanics, chemistry and the genetic code. The content of the chapters on prevailing science is amazingly rich. It gives a concise and clear description of the foundation of modern science. Just these few chapters alone, before examining the authors' arguments on the collapse of chaos, make the money spent on the book worth.
On physics, it is Newton's laws of motion and gravity, Einstein's theory of relativity and also the basis of quantum mechanics, explaining in their own way the cosmos starting from the Big Bang and all the way down to atoms and sub-atomic matter.
On chemistry, it is Mendeleev's periodic table, supplemented by the explanation of electron shells, and also the versatility of the carbon atom which make up the complex hydrocarbon molecules: the origin of life.
On evolution, it's Darwin's natural selection, DNA and the genetic code, and in particular the interaction between genes and the environment.
These are strong illustrations of the complexity around us. The simple rules from our discovery of the laws of nature do not necessarily and adequately explain all the observed occurrences of natural phenomenon. We are therefore living in a chaotic world full of events we do not understand, but we choose to explain a very small proportion of the chanced events which happen to fit our perceived laws.
Science explains complexities as the interaction of a huge quantity of possibilities by finding simple causes which could produce a proportion of the predictable complex effects, and call them the laws of nature. The result is used to explain predicted large-scale simplicities observed, among the complexities. We think that the laws of nature represent the underlying simplicities, and therefore these simple causes produce simple effects, despite complexities involved. However, we ignore the reality that our laws also produce complexities which are not accordingly explainable.
Cohen and Stewart explain that reductionism, i.e. the use of reducing behavior to the interactions of the smallest entity, has brought forth great advances in biology, chemistry, and physics. They believe, however, that the potential of such scientific approach is exhausted.
Starting from the middle of the book, the authors expand the new science of chaos theory and complexity theory to show how inadequate our laws of nature in dealing with complexity which is all around us. Chaos theory, made popular by the butterfly effect on the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, shows that simple causes can produce complex unpredictable effects. Whereas complexity theory suggests the opposite, that complex causes can produce simple effects.
Here, there are two main features emerging from the style of the authors. First, owing to the biology background of Jack Cohen, there are detailed examples and explanations on the complexity of evolution, the embryological growth and the development of consciousness and intelligence. They are eye-openers. Second, the authors introduce a conversation between human: the spaceship crew, and the alien: inhabitants of another planet. The core of the conversation is the difference in culture and the laws of nature between lives in different world. It proposes that our world is not unique and life form in another world may be developed along a completely different path, including the atom composition and DNA composition. The conversation is quite inspiring and humorous. However, it attracted criticism from some reviewers who have expectation of more serious writing from a supposedly science book.
The interaction between simplicity and complexity gradually escapes the paradigm of reductionism and the authors introduce two new terms: simplexity and complicity.
Simplexity refers to the tendency of a simpler order to emerge from complexity. It is the emergence of large-scale simplicities as direct consequences of rules. It covers any features that emerge from sets of similar ground rules.
Complicity is a kind of interaction between co-evolving systems that supports a tendency toward complexity. It is more like convergent evolution: different sets of rules generating similar features. Both concepts of simplexity and complicity bring about a collapse of chaos.
The moral of the book is on the inadequacy of reductionism, building toward the two explanatory principles of simplexity and complicity. For example, one cannot simply map a lower level of organization, such as the DNA code, into a living organism. There is a dynamic in which both content and context are critical.
on April 9, 2001
This is a witty and at times brilliant book. The authors argue that the reductionist approach to science, which has flourished over the last 300 years, for a more holistic or contrextual approach. In the reductionist approach, scientists have choped problems into manageable bits - lab experiments or discreet mathematical problems - that eventually they assume will be fit together into a coherent whole. Nature in this view functions as a vast machine they can reduce and separate into its component parts.
TO prove their point, the authors embark on a dazzling tour of biology, chemistry and physics. But something is missing say the authors. What we know, they claim, are tiny islands in a sea of ignorance; it is self limiting as the larger questions get neglected. It is the causes of simplicity, they say - the order that suddenly emerges - that researchers should explore.
So, they conclude, it is time for a new set of questions. Unfortunately, just when we expect something new, it is here that the book gets a bit vague, with the authors falling back on anecdotes and speculation. They try to coin a new vocabulary ("simplexity" for the old and "complicity" for theirs); offer some diagrams of what they want, including an odd picture of mixing smoke with a unicorn head; and they harp on strange and abrupt conclusions, such as the importance of squid fat to the evolution of the human brain. But they do not offer a coherent new paradigm.
An uneven effort, but fun and very funny at times.
on September 24, 2002
I loved this book. I have never seen such a huge compilation of ideas from so many different topics compiled into one place. Not only that, but all the topics interlink to show the obvious as well as subtle connections. I especially like the fact that throughout the book, the authors manage to show numerous points of view, but without trying to force the reader to fall into any specific belief. I'll admit that not all the ideas are original in this book, but that fact is even stated within the book. For a second-year chemical engineering major such as myself, this was a real inspiration for thinking "out of the box", and really made me think about some of the "knowns" tought in science. A deffinite must. I have several friends in line to borrow this book already!
on January 4, 2014
I read this book when I was in high school, and it changed my outlook on the universe.
It combines all the most trippy scientific and metaphysical facts and theories about the cosmos into one bound text.
If Douglas Adams wrote a non-fiction book about science, this would be it.
on October 2, 2012
I can't say I enjoyed this, hard as I tried. I think the basic point they're trying to make is rather simple, but it didn't come across that way. I've read lots of stuff by Dawkins, Pinker, Ridley and others, but for me, the explanations and analogies here didn't work, and the fun bits weren't especially fun. I don't know if that says more about me or the writers, but I won't be looking for more books by them.
This was the first book I bought for my Kindle and I started thinking I didn't like the reader, that I prefer paper books. Later purchases have shown me it's this particular book that was getting me down, not the machine.
Also, the number of typos and poor quality of diagrams here was really irritating.
on May 7, 2001
Not terribly impressive. The first two thirds of the book offer no new ideas, the authors just rehash material you'll find elsewhere. This part of the book spends *far* too much time on the subject of evolution and DNA in my opinion, perhaps because one of the co-authors is a biologist. How about cosmology or neurology, for example - both important fields in which low-level interactions give rise to high-level emergent behaviour ?
The final third of the book also fall a little flat, IMHO. The authors' grand insights seem trivial and unoriginal. One idea in particular seems to be 'borrowed' without acknowledgement from Douglas Hofstadter's amazing "Godel, Escher, Bach" : that a message and its context are inseparable (remember the dialogues with records and record players ?) I came away feeling distinctly un-enlightened.
One aspect that really annoyed me is the use of the awful hybrid words "simplexity" and "complicity", used to describe two quite different concepts. Every time they're used, the reader is left struggling to remember which word is which. I wish the authors had aimed for clarity, rather than playing silly word-games.
And finally, I have to mention the appalling design of the UK edition of this book. The type is far too small, and the cover (white text on bright yellow) is unreadable. There's a quote on the cover from Terry Pratchett, and his name is so prominent it honestly looks as though HE wrote the book. It is possibly the worst jacket design I've ever seen.
I really admired Ian Stewart's earlier books, but my advice is to avoid this one.
on March 25, 2012
I love this book, and its cover design, it is philosophically sending the signal to the reader to fight with regularity, and let the creative mind be collapsed by this fight.