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The Principles of Complexity: Life, Scale, and Civilization - Speaker Abstracts Aug 7

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Vijay Balasubramanian, University of Pennsylvania
The Variational Universe: From Strings to Neurons The fundamental laws of the universe can be expressed in terms of "variational principles" that determine the conditions of balance between various driving forces. In physics, for example, the preferred configurations of systems balance different kinds of energies (e.g., kinetic, potential and heat energies). General Relativity arises in this way as the theory of gravity from string theory, as do the equations of motion of the electromagnetic field and physical particles. Similarly, the equilibria of macroscopic materials (such as water) are determined by a variational principle that balances minimization of energy against maximization of entropy. Theorists today are trying to extend this way of thinking to living systems, and have begun to establish that the structural and functional organization of biological entities from singles cells to ecosystems can be understood in terms of novel variational principles. After explaining the concept of a "variational principle" via its uses in theoretical physics, I will illustrate recent applications in biology. I will do so by discussing how a principle of information maximization in systems with limited resources explains the complex architecture of sensory and cognitive maps in the brain.


James Brown, University of New Mexico and SFI External Professor
Metabolic Ecology of Humans
In just 50,000 years Homo sapiens has become the most dominant organism the earth has ever seen, expanding out of Africa to fill the world with 7 billion people, creating amazingly complex social, technological, and economic systems, and transforming the atmosphere, water, land, and biodiversity of the planet. This near exponential expansion has seen a 100-fold increase in metabolic rate: from the 100 watts of biological metabolism that consumes oxygen, food, and water to sustain a the body of a hunter-gatherer; to the 11,000 watts of extra-biological metabolism that consumes oil, gas, coal, metals, rare earths, ocean fish, and other resources to fuel a person’s share of the modern industrial-technological-informational economy. The essential flows of energy and materials between humans and the environment are governed by biophysical conservation laws and metabolic scaling relationships. Metabolic ecology uses these principles and macroecological data and analyses to understand how technological innovations spurred the rise of human civilization, and to ask how much longer the finite biophysical limits of the Earth can sustain population and economic growth.


Gary Feinman, The Field Museum
Framing the Rise and Variability of Past Complex Societies
To paraphrase Bruce Trigger, the study of complex societies and their developments has long been characterized by a conceptual tussle between efforts at generalization and the unraveling of specific cases. While each historical case is in certain senses unique, there are both scientific and policy rationales for drawing broader implications regarding this increasingly rich body of cross-cultural and often diachronic data on the varying pasts of human societies. This presentation critically focuses on the variety of overarching frames that have been traditionally employed by archaeologists to account for the seemingly analogical features in these episodes of social change. Given the diversity of historical paths that have been taken, it is argued that these approaches have focused too concertedly on uniformities and unilinealities that are hard to see. Drawing conceptual links beyond archaeology, directions toward a comparative theoretical frame that endeavors to account for variability in ancient states is offered.


Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, Oxford University
The Global and Urban Energy Challenges
The biggest challenge of the 21st-century is to provide sufficient food, water and energy to allow everyone on the planet to live decent lives in acceptable environments, in the face of rising (and increasingly urbanised) population, the threat of climate change, and (sooner or later) declining availability of fossil fuels. Provision of sufficient energy is a necessary (but not sufficient) means to meet the overall challenge and is of paramount importance. The linked energy, food and water challenges constitute a complex problem par excellence, with technical, social, political and geographical elements. I shall review the nature of the energy problem and the steps that are needed to meet it, with particular emphasis on the key role of cities and urban planning. I will also consider whether there are scaling laws that might provide guidance.