“It’s Complicated…” — guest blog post by Meredith Tromble

This is a guest post about our recent Complexity Symposium written by Meredith Tromble, an Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at San Francisco Art Institute. We were also lucky to have Prof. Tromble display some of her art at our Symposium! More on Professor Tromble can be found here: http://meredithtromble.net/


“It’s Complicated…” by Meredith Tromble

When animal behaviorist Kelly Finn forwarded the announcement for “It’s Complicated,” I just signed up. Kelly and I know each other through University of California, Davis, where I am artist-in-residence at the Complexity Sciences Center; I was curious what a new-to-me group of researchers would have to say about “The Relationship of Complexity Theory to Normative Discourse in Science, Society, and Beyond.” Of the three big questions that the organizers used to focus the day (“What is ‘Complexity Science’,” “How is Complexity Science integrated into various disciplines,” and “How does Complexity Science affect how we solve scientific, social, or philosophical problems?”) the question that sold me on coming was the third one. The symposium delivered a cornucopia of provisional answers and, even more fruitfully, an abundance of questions that could lead to even more refined and successful solutions.

The talks were generally excellent. In the three that were most immediately useful to me as artist explorer of science, self-organization researcher Carlos Gershenson opened with a lucid introduction to complexity as a philosophical concern, biologist philosopher Rasmus Grønfelt Winther compressed the soul of a very substantial forthcoming book into a mash-up of cartography, feminist science studies, and mapping genetics, and historian Jessica Riskin recounted the banishment of historical explanation from natural science in an illuminating talk that should soon become substantial book if it is not already. I was familiar with the food web work of biologist and network scientist Neo Martinez, but hearing about it in close proximity to biologist Deborah Gordon’s talk on algorithms that determine collective behavior hinted at questions about biology and scale worth pursuing further. If John Harte’s discussion of maximum entropy quickly outstripped my ability to follow in detail, I enjoyed the challenge, and other presentations such as the trio of talks on earthquake prediction were accessible for the mathematically less-trained.

Reflecting on the day, I imagined our knowledge world — all the huge universe of things that artists, scholars, and scientists are making, writing, and researching — as a network, one where each discipline is a lively hub, getting richer and deeper by the day into its subject, be it sculpture, biology or history. But the network also has links — moments such as the symposium where people who are expert in one field allow themselves to be instructed by other fields. Energizing these links has a great deal to do with the resiliency of the network as a whole. One of the books that continues to inspire me is an account of just such a gathering in 1968, Mary Catherine Bateson’s Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation (1972). “It’s Complicated…” continued that tradition.

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