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Why do we need a theory of non-elephants?

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Anje Neutel.

Open to non-BAS; please contact Christian Franzke ( or Anje Neutel ( if you would like to attend.

A car is complicated because it consists of many components, but nevertheless the components with known properties work together in a predictable way and the car does what it is designed to do. A complex system is different in the sense that the behaviour of the system cannot be predicted from knowing the properties of the constituent parts alone. For example, the behaviour of the brain cannot be deduced from studying a single neuron in isolation nor can the behaviour of an ant colony be deduced from studying a single ant. These complex systems display emergent behaviour due to the interactions of the constituent parts that cannot be predicted or forecasted with present theories. This matters a great deal because complex systems are ubiquitous in the natural and man-made world. The society is facing increasingly complex problems since the plentitude of interactions make standard modelling inadequate, hindering forecasting and control. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to develop new appropriate approaches and theories to real-world challenges and a proper understanding of design, management, uncertainty and risk at systems level is necessary. Complexity science is attempting to find a theory of complex systems or, equivalently, a theory of non-equilibrium systems which the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann refereed to as a “theory of non-elephants”. In the lecture, I will embark on the quest of a theory of non-elephants, looking for signs of the mere existence of such a theory. The quest is only in its infancy, so it seems appropriate we start with a pile of sand before moving on to discuss other non-equilibrium systems like the crust of the earth and the atmosphere. This will take us into the realm of self-regulating systems and an ant colony is an ideal model system for studying the principles of how biological social self-regulatory systems work as they represent the pinnacle of social evolution in animals.

This talk is part of the British Antarctic Survey series.

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