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American Institute of Physics



Book Review

Thinking in Complexity: The Computational Dynamics of Matter, Mind, and Mankind, 4th ed.

Klaus Mainzer
Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 2004, 456 pp.
ISBN 3-540-00239-1

Reviewed by Anutosh Moitra

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book coverThe science of complexity is likely to be among the most salient features of the 21st century, and Thinking in Complexity: Computational Dynamics of Matter, Mind, and Mankind is just as likely to be among the most popular introductions to the topic. Author Klaus Mainzer treats highly technical materials related to descriptions of complexity pervading science, engineering, societal dynamics—and even ethics—with a lucidity that is sure to captivate physicists as well as the general public with a moderate scientific background.

The central premise of the book regards complexity as emergent phenomena— structure, chaos, phase transition, and so on. These phenomena arise out of nonlinear interactions augmented by dissipation and constrained by a requirement of balance between the two. Macroscopic patterns curdle out of the soup of nonlinear interactions between microscopic components of a system. Mainzer extends this concept to encompass such diverse subjects as classical and quantum physics, dynamic systems, evolution of life and organisms, cellular automata and networks, artificial intelligence, economics, and social and cultural systems, and he finishes with a chapter of speculations on how the science of complexity will inform humankind’s roles, responsibilities, and ethics in the future. Readers of this book will enjoy Mainzer’s exposition, which is based on a tight coupling between classical and historical concepts from Plato and Aristotle to modern, mathematical and physical developments, including relativity, chaos, and quantum physics. Every chapter begins with a section designed to orient the reader to the perspective of philosophical developments through the ages pertinent to the topic at hand. Readers with the patience to read between the lines will be rewarded with occasional gems such as Mainzer’s speculation on a possible correlation between a society’s development of atomistic ideas and its possession of a phonetic alphabet. The author takes pains to point out essential differences between classical science and the science of complexity. Simple forecasting or prediction is neither possible nor warranted in complexity studies. One must execute all the minute steps of a complex process to arrive at a particular end result, which is just one of multiple possible futures. The goal of thinking in complexity is to better understand the process and the system.

The chapters on societal-cultural complex phenomena are particularly intriguing. An economic system has at its microcomponent level individuals with self-interests and egoistic intentions. Aggregate market behavior appears at a macro level. Dissipation mechanisms are supplied to this nonlinear interactive process by obvious means—political or economic friction. Mainzer extrapolates from this reasoning the idea that ethics, in the sense of a way to attain the greatest good, is not determined by individual abilities or advantages but evolves by a stream of complex, nonlinear, and random processes. Thinking in Complexity is an outstandingly readable book.


Anutosh Moitra is a principal engineer at Boeing in Seattle, Washington, and works in the field of computational fluid dynamics.