A Byte of my 2.2-lb Brain

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Complexity and the Philippine Society

Reposting as is. This article was originally published on 07 June 2012 (Part I) and 14 June 2012 (Part II) in (Philippine) STAR Science.

Complexity & the Philippine Society (Part I)

“The 21st century will be the century of complexity.” – Stephen Hawking

In the recent season finale of the American Idol, a scientific paper by F. Ciulla et al. titled “Beating the news using Social Media: the case study of American Idol”, which was initially uploaded to arXiv was circulated around the WWW and even featured in some of our local news websites. The paper presents methods to analyze sentiments and voting behaviors of individuals by assessing some open source data extracted from Twitter within the period of the TV show’s season finale. The results are interesting as they were able to provide some forecast on the final outcome of the competition. More interesting, it seems, is the fact that all five (5) authors of the said paper are from the Department of Physics of Northeastern University in Boston. Yes, Physics. What do physicists have to do with sentiment and voting behavior analysis of individuals in a society?

In like manner, family and friends used to ask me what in the world I was doing studying multilevel marketing or competition in a social structure; or, why I was even looking into the dynamics of the procurement process in government systems with colleagues from the National Institute of Physics in UP Diliman. To boot, part of my dissertation that was done in collaboration with Asst. Prof. C. David of the UP College of Mass Communication involved the analysis of frames that surround the reproductive health and population issues in the news. I have to admit that the perplexity is completely understandable. Why wouldn’t it be so? I was doing a Ph.D. in Physics.

In the global arena it is not uncommon any more to find a physicist or a mathematician working on social, economic, and/or even ecological issues. However, the very idea of multidisciplinary undertaking still seems to be somewhat new to most Filipinos. How many of us know, or at least have heard, about Complexity Science anyway?

‘Complexity Science’ or ‘Complexity’ is a contemporary field of science that refers to the study of, pardon the tautology, complex systems. The term ‘complex’ is defined as something that “consists of many different and connected parts” or something that is ‘intricate’. ‘System’ in turn refers to “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism”. In a very broad sense, complex systems are systems composed of many entities/bodies that interact with each other, consequently giving rise to an emergent collective behavior. The behavior is emergent in a sense that even though there are no centralized controllers, the systems still exhibit order and self-organization. Such order and self-organization are seen in swarms such as flocks of birds, schools of fishes, and colonies of ants, to name a few.

Complex systems are ubiquitous in both nature and society. From experience, the best way to illustrate what complex systems are is by outlining some quintessential textbook examples like those presented in M. Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour and/or Y. Bar-Yam’s Dynamics of Complex Systems. One good example is the human immune system. Our immune system is composed of many different entities such as the T-cells, B-cells, dendritic cells, macrophages, etc. These cells are spread all over the body playing varying key roles to protect us from foreign substances such as the viruses and bacteria. They ‘talk’ and send signals to each other in order to respond promptly to ensuing invaders, with no single cell commanding the entire battalion of cells. One interesting question about the immune system is how these defender cells know who their allies are and who are not (e.g. tumor cells); and perhaps one baffling question would be, why do some of these supposed defenders besiege their own system, such as in the case of the HIV?

The brain is another example of a complex system, my favorite in fact. We know from elementary biology that our brains are composed of neurons, which when organized form tissues that make up the entire nervous system. In humans, there are about 100 billion neurons that make up the nervous system. These cells interact with each other through some form of signaling. The matter that intrigues me the most about their “communication system” is how these signals are generated and processed since the connectivity of the neurons does not just form the structure of the organ that is the brain, but more importantly, it gives rise to human consciousness. Where and how does consciousness arise from the interactions of these billions of cells?

One last example of a complex system that I would like to share with you is society – the very reason why I wanted to pursue research in Complexity in the first place. Society is made up of individuals who are, in one way or another, connected to each other. Essentially, we interact based on how we are connected; it could also be that we are connected based on how we interact. Still and all, if we are to map out our relationships, this will result in a social network, which we are all probably familiar with, thanks to modern-day virtual social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The social network represents a web of people (nodes) and their varying levels of relationships (links). It is a kind of mathematical abstraction that describes the structure and function of our society.

There is a profusion of phenomena that emerge from social interactions. Epidemic spreading is probably a perceptible illustration. Why do viruses such as H1N1 or SARS spread across nations? Why are there seasonal chickenpox or dengue fever epidemics? Why is the HIV crisis worsening in the Philippines? How do these diseases spread? What can we do to stop them? What is the most effective and at the same time most economical strategy to abate the spreading?

—- END of Part 1 —-

—- Beginning of Part 2 —-

Complexity & the Philippine Society (Part II)

The way people interact within a social system also affects other socio-economic systems such as financial and economic institutions, transport and telecommunication systems, urban systems, and even the social media. Socio-economic phenomena such as traffic jams, bullish and bearish markets, financial crashes, even poverty and corruption are all influenced by the way we interact, whether we are aware of it or not. Therefore, it is believed that understanding network connectivity and how system entities interact with one another takes us a step closer to addressing real-world socio-economic issues more effectively.

Unmistakably, Complexity Science is a very rich and exciting field; and, it is fast growing. The spur in its development has also been largely due to the advancement of technology that has allowed us to extract rich data sets from real-world systems. With these gazillion worth of data within our reach, the real challenge is to restructure them in more manageable and tractable forms to unveil patterns, and then to describe the possible dynamics behind the patterns to eventually shed light on how these phenomena came about. These undertakings are non-trivial. As physicist and Nobel Prize winner Philip Anderson said in 1972 in his Science paper titled “More is Different”: “… the whole becomes not merely more, but very different from the sum of its parts” [5]. The very traditional science that we are all familiar with that uses a purely reductionist approach so longer suffices. New methods need to be developed by formulating new theories, and/or by integrating existing theories into each other. This is why understanding complexity in the most objective sense has become one of the holy grails of modern science.

With the complex system examples outlined above, it is not difficult to realize how important it is for experts from diverse fields to team up and work together, e.g. physicists and/or mathematicians working with anthropologists and/or sociologists. In fact, the founders of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) whose shoulders we are now standing on have already imagined as early as 1984 that a single field of research cannot simply solve real-world issues on its own. The SFI is one of the pioneering institutions in Complexity; it has been described as “a sort of Justice League of renegade geeks, where teams of scientists from disparate fields study the Big Questions: Why financial markets crash. How terrorist cells form. Why viruses spread. How life ends.”

What I hope to achieve here is share with you this rich and exciting field where I currently belong. In all honesty, Complexity is still a topic that bemuses and overwhelms me every now and then; nevertheless, it sure does make for good conversations over coffee. On a more serious note, even though this short article is just the very tip of the tip of the humongous iceberg that is Complexity, I hope that somehow a part of you was sparked to read and learn more about Complexity Science. Complexity is a very open and engaging field. This is why I am quite hopeful that in the near future, the scientists and social scientists of our nation would collaborate and reduce the gap between the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences. This is necessary for us to tackle, in a more quantitative, objective, and effectual manner, the more urgent socio-economic issues that plague our nation; so we could push for more grounded and well thought out policies, taking advantage of what we know about Complexity.


Erika Fille Legara, Ph.D. is currently doing a post-doctoral stint at the Institute of High Performance Computing under the Cross-Disciplinary Data-Intensive Analytics group in Singapore. She finished her Ph.D. in Physics at the National Institute of Physics in UP Diliman under the mentorship of UPD Chancellor Caesar Saloma and Assoc. Prof. Christopher Monterola. She graduated as the 2011 Most Outstanding Graduate Student of the UPD College of Science; at the same time, she was presented with the Edgardo Gomez Excellence in Dissertation Award. In June 2010, she was admitted to Santa Fe Institute’s highly competitive Complex Systems Summer School as a scholar. Prior to her post-doctoral stint, she was an assistant professor at the NIP-UPD.

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2017 by in Blog, Geek, Philippines, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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