What Is Systems Science?



So what is systems science anyway?


Systems science is an attempt to understand commonalities and general principles that govern a variety of systems large and small.


The history of systems science stems from the Cybernetics movement which was pioneered by a group of interdisciplinary scientists who were interested in feedback loops, networks, nonlinear systems, and circular causality. Cybernetics was popularized by Norbert Wiener's pioneering 1948 work Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics from 1946 to 1953 resulted in some of the greatest scientists in the history of computer science, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and anthropology to come together to identify and explore unifying principles that govern complex systems (Collins, 2007). For those interested in learning about the history of cybernetics and its role in commerce, politics, and military technology, check out the eye-opening and stunning documentary 'Eyewar: Root and Thorn' By Ganix Naston and Zoe Pavlovitch below:



In the spirit of cybernetics, we see the rise of complex systems theory, or chaos theory, which is primarily concerned with the properties of systems with many components that interact in a complicated and nonlinear fashion. These types of systems have the properties like self-organization, emergence, and adaptation to external conditions. These systems also have tricky properties like being nearly impossible to predict the end state of the system given only the initial conditions.


A wonderful introduction to complex systems can be found in Chaos by James Gleick, which is a popular science book that introduces systems theory to the lay reader in an accessible and exciting way. That book is certainly what got me hooked on chaos. Ever heard of the thing called the Butterfly Effect? It is actually based on a fascinating set of equations presented by Edward Lorenz in his 1963 paper Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow:




How about fractal geometry? I'm sure you see those all the time! The study of fractals was pioneered by Benoit Mandelbrot who discovered in 1967 that shape of the UK's coastline was the highly similar at different spatial scales (1 mile of coastline looks similar to 10 miles, 10 miles to 100 miles, and so on). Here is a history of Mandelbrot's work and the discovery of the Mandelbrot set:


Complex systems also have the quality of self-organization, which is the ability for a system to develop global order from local interactions of its component parts. If you are interested in systems that are capable self-organization, watch this video about John Conway's Game of Life (1970) :


That's should keep you occupied, there is much more where that came from, but hopefully that's enough to hold you over for a bit! :) More to come in future posts!


Bibliography


Collins, S. G. (2007). Do Cyborgs Dream of Electronic Rats? The Macy Conferences and the Emergence of Hybrid Multi-Agent Systems. In AAAI Fall Symposium.


Conway, J. (1970). The game of life. Scientific American, 223(4), 4.


Lorenz, E. N. (1963). Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal of the atmospheric sciences, 20(2), 130-141.

Mandelbrot, B. B. (1967). How long is the coast of Britain. science, 156(3775), 636-638.


Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. MIT press.



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