on June 15, 1999
How do you file a book like "The Quark and the Jaguar?" I could file it with books discussing quantum physics. That would certainly be appropriate. Then, again, I could file it with books on evolution. That would be equally appropriate. But then I might decide to file it in the section on public policy toward the environment, and environmental protection. Certainly, that is an appropriate place for this book. But wait. It also belongs in the section dealing with artificial intelligence and complex adaptive systems. So, where would you put it? I'm still not sure.
Murray Gell-Mann's "The Quark and the Jaguar" takes us on a whirlwind tour from the "simple" construct of quantum physics to the complex adaptive system in a coat of spots moving stealthily through the forest in search of game. Through all this, Gell-Mann ties the entire tapestry into the unifying concepts of complex adaptive systems leaving the reader in awe at the wonder and complexity that arises from the natural evolutionary processes governing the universe in which we live.
The book is organized in four parts. The first is a general-purpose section that discusses everything from information theory to the scientific method and the power of scientific theories. It's always a pleasure to read a description of science and the scientific method from a leading scientist such as Gell-Mann. The sections dealing with falsifiability, selection pressure on the scientific enterprise, unifying characteristics of scientific theories, and the power of theory give a clear and illuminating explanation of the essence of science.
The second part of the book deals with quantum physics. Here you will find Gell-Mann's own story about the (theoretical) discovery of the quark and how it fits into the standard model. Gell-Mann's discussion about the standard model is among the clearest I've seen for the general reader. I found his explanation of all the so-called quantum paradoxes especially well done. From the standard model Gell-Mann explains some of the ideas within superstring theory and the hope that this may provide the unification of physics that has been anticipated for so long.
I always hesitate to differ with anyone of Gell-Mann's stature. Especially in public. It invariably leads to embarrassment. Still, I'm just as loath to read a book and find myself in complete agreement with all its points. On the subject of complexity I found myself out of sorts with the trend followed by Gell-Mann. He begins by describing complexity as algorithmic complexity. This is essentially the length of the shortest binary code that can describe the phenomena. Gell-Mann then points out some rather obvious deficiencies with this definition. For example, it is a maximum for a completely random string of bits, yet we don't typically associate complexity with randomness. From there Gell-Mann takes us to something he calls effective complexity. Yet Gell-Mann laments that this still seems inadequate because it would use the genomes of living things to assess their effective complexity, yet we know (or do we?) that humans are far more complex than apes, even though we share well over 90% of our genetic code.
This apparent desire leads eventually to something Gell-Mann calls "potential complexity." Now, I cannot argue specifically against these definitions. They seem perfectly intuitive and obvious. Still, I cannot shake the feeling that I'm seeing the same process that led scientists in the 19'Th century to define characteristics for the human skull that led to conclusions that whites were more intelligent than blacks. The entire scheme was ultimately based on subconsciously working toward a desired conclusion by manipulating definitions.
Are we more complex than apes? I'm not so sure. Especially when one considers the next effect of humanity on the earth. True, for what it's worth we have an extensive and (is it really?) complex culture. Then again, we are the cause of the greatest mass extinction since the K/T boundary. If you add it all up, I wonder if we really are responsible for more complexity than random destruction.
Sections three and four differ fundamentally from the first two parts. The first two parts deal with what Gell-Mann would call simple systems. Things like quantum physics and the general theory of relativity. The really complicated stuff is in biology. Part three deals with that and more, including general discussions about how complex adaptive systems learn. I found the part on creative learning especially interesting. This section purports to explain how to enhance one's ability to think creatively. The section is only ½ page long. Interestingly, creative thinking correlates with what often appears to be random thought processes. I couldn't help wondering about the conclusions regarding algebraic complexity and randomness.
The book ends with section four, which is really Gell-Mann's views on various social issues, particularly those associated with the environment. I could not help wishing, as I read these last few pages, that our species could not have a few more men like Gell-Mann. What a difference it would make if his level of intellect, honesty, compassion, and logic could be brought to focus on more issues. It left me with a renewed determination to follow his lead in doing more to preserve biodiversity on earth for the earth, and for future generations.
If you find wonder in the world, and excitement in a journey of discovery, then I recommend Gell-Mann's book wholeheartedly.
on April 11, 2002
This book is a little strange, and tries to cover a lot of ground without gaining miles. The question is if it is worth it to buy and read. I think it is, if only because of the excellent review of particle physics and the fact that Gell-Mann is one of the smartest men alive. But the book is much more ambitious, what in some cases is actually a good thing. Not in this one, however.
The main subject of the book is the study of "complex adaptive systems" carried out in the Santa-Fe Institute. Gell-Mann tries to review the topics studied there, but not because he glorifies the place, or think that it is unique, but because he knows the territory well (He helped found it). So the first section deals with the definitions of complexity, of adaptation, and of a system. There are good explanations of things like Algorithmic information content, and effective complexity, among other things. So far, Gell-Mann adds to the then-ever-popular issue of complexity. Not much can be said that is terribly wrong or innovative so far.
In the second section Gell-Mann goes into what he knows best, and it shows. The standard model of particle physics has very rareley been as well explained as in this book. Superstring, a little cosmology and the arrow of time are given space. But in the third section, things start to fall appart. Suddenly Gell-Mann gives inadequate discussions of evolution, useless talks of "memes" and the complex origins of theorizing, superstition and things like that. Economics is swiftly introduced, only to add to the confusion. The last section of the book, is was unecessary and downright strange. (som may object). It dealt with social issues and possible solutions. This part seemed to belong to another book, or writer, altogether.
So the book is not a lost case. It is interesting, reads well, and has some good ideas and explanations. But it is by no means what one would normaly expect coming from a Nobel prize winning physicist.
on February 22, 2003
Gell-mann is, quite simply, an expert in more fields than most people have a passing interest in. Added to this is a lucid, entertaining writing style, and the ability to knit together seemingly disparate concepts from the fields of physics, cosmology, genetics, information theory, evolution, behavioural psychology, sociology...you name it.
It seems a few people have been criticising Gell-mann for overextending himself, boasting about his own achievements or simply writing a dislocated, jumbled book. My advice to these people is to 'look for the patterns behind the apparent randomness', as Gell-mann might have put it (because they are there, all right), give him his due for his own (considerable) contributions to physics and admire his courage in even attempting to connect so many ideas, let alone succeeding as well as does.
I loved this book, and I think anyone interested in just about any aspect of science ought to like it too.
on November 1, 2001
Saving money by buying this book? How can that be? The answer is very simple.
1) For instance, you want to buy a book about thought experiment involving Schrödinger cat, because you are interested how is it possible that cat can be simultaneously both, live and dead. Well, quantum mechanics doesn't imply that cat is live and dead at the same time, so there is no such a problem.
2) Say, you want to buy a book about parallel universes which suppose to emerge from strange quantum mechanical laws. Don't, because those parallel universes doesn't emerge from quantum mechanics (or from any other known physical law!)
3) Likewise, don't buy books which wants to 'explain' spooky affects of one photon on the other in the distance. That is not what happening after all.
4) Also, some books covers the subject about how biological evolution violate the second law of thermo-dynamics (because in biological evolution order tend to increase with the passage of time). Truth is that this is not truth.
All these, and many other questions Gell-Mann clearly explain in 'Quark and the Jaguar', so don't waste your time and money on those books.
You may ask your self: But, maybe Gell-Mann is wrong? Maybe he is, but it is extremely unlikely. He is the greatest living authority on quantum mechanics you can find around, so it is very wise to take seriously what he wants to tell us. Gell-Mann is, by all means, a far away from popular speculation and misunderstandings. His goal is not to take your money by writing what most people want to hear - a kind of misticism in science.
'Quark and the Jaguar' covers really wide range of subjects, which is not very surprising considering his brilliant mind. If you want to open up your mind this is the book for you. After reading it, you can start studying subjects you are especially interested for. 'Quark and the Jaguar' is must for any intelligent individual.
on October 12, 2004
The "reductionistic" scientific method, which seeks to reduce phonomena to simpler and more general underlying bludprints, has dominated the last three centuries. It works great in physics, as Newton domonstrated, but less well in other disciplines such as biology and psychology. For example, molecular biologists have isolated DNA, but have yet to adequately explain embroyonic development, protein folding and other riddles. To overcome these shortcomings, many are calling for a theory of complexity, which should focus on systems and the dynamics of development where order appears to organize itself from a bewildering number of interacting factors.
Gell-Mann argues that rather than replacing reductionist methods, complexity theory complements that approach. The quark is the simple and universal, the jaguar the complex. He suggests that between these two exists an unbroken chain.
Gell-Mann attempts to make his contribution with teh "complex adaptive system" that "acquires information about its environment" and indentifies "regularities in that information", which are then condensed into a "schema" or "model"; these latter are "non-static," and unlike a quark can evolve. Each complex adaptive system contains three strands: 1) basic rules; 2) frozen accidents; 3) a selection process. For example, language has genetically inherited cognitive capabilites with certain quirky attributes that persist and yet can change as the individual must describe new phenomena. A lot of the book is devoted to finding and explaining similar examples. It is a panoramic and entertaining excursion through human knowledge, if a bit cursory.
Gell-Mann also hopes to guide scientists into a more holistic and cross-disciplinary approaches. With its focus on historical development and links between the simple and complex, the study of complex adaptive systems, he argues, may be the spur required to stimulate such approaches, briging physics, chemistry, biology and even the social sciences. This is what he is doing at the Santa Fe Institute.
At its best, the book is a window into a great scientific mind, with fascinating mini-essays on state of the art science. Unfortunately, Gell-Mann is an uneven writer. Many passages are impenetrable to lay readers like myself. At a deeper level, he fails to critique the vague research agendas of the complexologists, who have been ridiculously popularised in such enues as Wired. Even the complex adaptive system may say too little about too much. Through it all, Gell-Mann maintains his pose as a total pedant.
REcommended. It is uneven, but this is one of the greatest thinks of the 20C.
Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex is a fascinating book. Included is the best (simple) explanation of quarks and sub-atomic particle physics that I have ever read. If you are interested in understand quarks (and the field of quantum mechanics and superstrings), you should read this book by the Nobel Laureate who discovered (and named) them.
But the book has a lot more to it. There are chapters on evolution, language acquisition, science, time, superstition, and complex adaptive systems. The author is opinionated and fun to read.
on December 8, 2012
"The Quark and the Jaguar" is Nobel laureate Maurray Gell-Mann's exploration of the relationship between the basic laws of physics and complex adaptive systems. As one of the discoverers of the quark, a basic sub atomic particle, Gell-Mann extrapolates from the basic laws governing all matter to the evolution of complex systems and the evolution of individuality, adaptability, and the interactive complexities of entire ecosystems. Along the way, he also illustrates his point by exploring how children learn language. As someone intrigued by chaos theory but who can only understand complex mathematics verbally, I'm always on the look out for books that I don't need advanced calculus to understand. The books definitely satisfies "my Jones."
on April 10, 2013
If, like me, one does not fully comprehend the details of the author's work in quantum mechanics, that does not really stand in the way of enjoying this book as an ode to learning and the spirit of discovery. Not always a natural or fluid narrator, but Mr Gell-mann's enthusiasm and passion for the wonders of the world's workings carries the book along briskly enough.
on August 8, 2015
Really liked this book. You don't have to be a scientist to learn a lot from this book. I especially liked the latter chapters where he talks about our responsibility to take care of our planet. This book was written a couple of decades ago but is still relevant.
I might also have entitled my review, "See Carlos Camara's review of April 11, 2002." Camara captures my own thoughts to a tee. Where Gell-Mann is strongest, namely, on particle physics, his strengths shine through. Though hardly a rigorous survey of the field, the second section of Q&J is a compelling introduction to it -- and certainly whets one's appetite for further reading. The book's first section (an overview of the notion of complexity) is decent (though far better popular treatments can be found elsewhere). The book's third and fourth sections, however, are pretty much a total wash. I could tolerate them only insofar as they reflected the obvious integrity of the author. He is a political kindred spirit. That said, having purchased Q&J and had high expectations of it, I was surprised and not a little frustrated at how bereft of substance it was on matters "Jaguarian". More than a little disconnected, I found the second half of Q&J rambling, pedestrian, and even sophomoric. Certainly not what one expects of a Nobel prize winning physicist and of one of the founders of the Santa Fe institute. My respect for Gell-Mann, as a scientist and a humanist, is in no way diminished by Q&J, but I cannot help but feel that he (and his publisher) faltered with this effort. My advice: read the first half of Q&J for a cursory -- but well-written -- survey of complexity and particle physics. Skip the second half altogether.