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Simplicity and complexity. Complex adaptive systems


Gell-Mann's research: 1997
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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Well I've been working on three issues. One of them we discussed already, and that is the work with Jim Hartle on trying to understand a reasonable basis for quantum mechanics. A second one, which is not unrelated, is to understand something about issues of simplicity and complexity. I call that whole field 'plectics' from a Greek word for braided, plectos, related to the Latin root, plexus, which originally also meant braided and from which we get complexes—complex; braided together. But it's related distantly also to the Latin verb plecare, they both come from the same Indo-European root, plec. Plecare means to fold, and simplex originally was once folded, and that gives simple or simplicity. So simplicity and complexity are related, once folded and braided together, and it's interesting that the word we're using refers to braiding or folding because entanglement is essential of course to produce anything that has any sort of diversity, complexity, individuality. If we were all just made of independent, of…of quarks and electrons in independent states we wouldn't have much… many properties of interest. So I think plectics is an excellent word, and it's non-committal with respect to whether you're discussing the simple laws or their complex consequences.

Anyway, quantum mechanics is one subject. The second subject is understanding something about simplicity and complexity, logical depth, chaos, trade-offs, trade-offs between logical depth and effective complexity, and so on and so forth. On all of this I've been co-operating with Seth Lloyd who is now an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, although he was trained as a physicist, and he works on a lot on quantum computers, so he says he's a professor of quantum mechanical engineering at MIT, and of course Jim Hartle has played some role in that too. And the third subject, that I've been working on these last years, and especially recently, is the typology of scaling phenomena, and you and Juan Pérez-Mercader and Jim Brown and I are trying to get NASA support for our work on the typology of scaling phenomena. Is it really true that all scaling phenomena in all fields have something to do with one another? Or are there different kinds of scaling and may be some slight mathematical differences among the different kinds of scaling, and so on? It's a very exciting subject, I think. I've been fascinated with Zipf's law for cities and things like that for fifty years now, since I first heard about it from Viki Weisskopf, my thesis adviser, and trying to understand what sorts of relations there are among different scaling phenomena and different explanations for scaling phenomena would be very exciting.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019) was known for his creation of the eightfold way, an ordering system for subatomic particles, comparable to the periodic table. His discovery of the omega-minus particle filled a gap in the system, brought the theory wide acceptance and led to Gell-Mann's winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.

Listeners: Geoffrey West

Geoffrey West is a Staff Member, Fellow, and Program Manager for High Energy Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is also a member of The Santa Fe Institute. He is a native of England and was educated at Cambridge University (B.A. 1961). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1966 followed by post-doctoral appointments at Cornell and Harvard Universities. He returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 1970. He left to build and lead the Theoretical High Energy Physics Group at Los Alamos. He has numerous scientific publications including the editing of three books. His primary interest has been in fundamental questions in Physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles and their interactions. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena grew out of his work on scaling in quantum chromodynamics and the unification of all forces of nature. In 1996 this evolved into the highly productive collaboration with James Brown and Brian Enquist on the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology and the development of realistic quantitative models that analyse the influence of size on the structural and functional design of organisms.

Tags: MIT, NASA, Jim Hartle, Seth Lloyd, Juan Pérez-Mercader, Jim Brown, Viki Weisskopf

Duration: 3 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010