For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!
You are using a browser that is no longer supported by Microsoft. Please upgrade your browser. The site may not present itself correctly if you continue browsing.

Curiosity, Serendipity and Complexity

Reflections from a chesterfield chair in the Sweelinck board room

Written by Peter Sloot, Scientific Director of the UvA Institute for Advanced Study.

It is September 1938, we are in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. With tired feet carrying only one small knapsack and with no money on him, a man is escaping the Nazi regime that has overtaken his home country. Dismissed, without notice, from his position at Graz University he flees through the Alps via Rome and Ghent. He ends up at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin, where a few years later, in 1944, he publishes a book that motivated the physicist Francis Crick to change topics from physics to biology, and that motivated generations of scientists to look at biology and life with fresh eyes. The book was called What Is Life?[1], the expelled scientist was the 1933 Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961). Schrödinger received the Nobel Prize, together with Paul Dirac, for his seminal work on quantum mechanics. One may wonder what made him move from thinking about the smallest possible, isolated, low dimensional systems to thinking about the intricacies of an endless number of molecules, cells, organelles, organs, organisms all interacting into the emerging phenomenon that we call life.

One may also wonder, why stop there? Why not consider the next scale and think about how those organisms have evolved into conscious individuals that invented, discovered and developed electronics, computers, thinking robots, nuclear power, the contraceptive pill, antibiotics? Together they form and build a complex society that, with ever increasing speed of change, put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and created the world wide web. And, yes, also a society that kills its brothers and sisters and destroys its own natural environment much faster than it can reason about it.

It is this endless, increasing speed of interaction, innovation and technology development that seems to push us forward, and at the same time does not allow our behaviour, cultural values, ethics, social capital and policies to evolve with it. Are we really heading for that big technological singularity as scholars like Raymond Kurzweil[2], Geoffrey West[3] and Alexander Panov[4] make us believe? If we are, where is the human component, the social, spiritual, cultural, artistic dimension? Will we find peace and time to reflect on the deeper values of life? Can we still contemplate and think about the inconceivable nature of Nature? as Richard Feynman would say[5].

Clearly these are all deep and broad questions to ask. Deep because they require insight into foundational processes that drive nature, the universe, life and societies, but also broad as we will not understand the forest by only staring at the trees. To make things even more difficult, there is a tremendous urgency to address these questions. The accelerating pace of change in the world in which we live, and the immense number of scientific, technological and societal challenges we are confronted with, allow for no further delay but beg for immediate action.

Reflecting on the complexity we are facing, Eberhard van der Laan, the late Mayor of Amsterdam, once phrased it like this: “There are no written rules to run a city. The city breathes and evolves and the only thing you can do is monitor what is going on and use your brains and heart to push it every now and then a little, in a direction you hope is the right one.” This might hold not only for cities, but also for nations and the world at large. I had the fortune to travel with Eberhard on a series of missions to India. Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai were some of the places where we had an opportunity to see life in all its rich kaleidoscopic aspects. It was on one of those trips that the former Rector of the University of Amsterdam, Dymph van den Boom, Eberhard and myself found ourselves discussing the fact that most scientific education still is monodisciplinary, as is research funding and research evaluation, whereas the big questions we see around us are all in dire need of an interdisciplinary approach. The question is then how to solve this paradox? Clearly the quest for interdisciplinarity has been going on for quite some time, but are there scientific principles to connect the dots from molecule to mankind, so to speak? Not much is going to happen if you put a theoretical physicist next to an economist; or a psychologist next to a computer scientist for that matter. Nothing happens unless you provide them with four things: a central question to answer, a common language to use, a shared space, and time to spend together.

Some months after the India trips, in May 2012 on the evening of the 76th lustrum celebration of the University of Amsterdam, Dymph van den Boom and I reiterated these ideas in the presence of Robbert Dijkgraaf, at that time still President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Art and Sciences and on his way out to become Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “Yes,” Robbert reflected, “this totally makes sense. What we need researchers to do is to colour outside the lines, and a place where that is appreciated and stimulated”. Later he would add to that: “we need a laboratory to let new ideas grow and then escape”.

Thus, the idea of an Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Amsterdam was born.

What would that common language be that allows scientists from all walks of life to interact creatively and develop those new ideas that can grow and then escape? For a possible answer we need to go back in time a bit. In the late 1940s a chemist in Brussels, Ilya Prigogine, embarked on research that would take him in rather surprising directions. He studied the energy associated with chemical reactions. In 1977 it won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on non-equilibrium dynamics. Interestingly enough, it also led him to write a book about traffic management, surely one of the more startling examples of the unexpected outcomes of scientific research. Prigogine proved something that scientists before him had doubted: that it is possible to create order from disorder. He realised that his ideas applied not only to chemical reactions but also to the wider world, from city traffic to how a colony of ants organises itself. Today this field of study is known as 'complexity science' and it studies ‘complex adaptive systems’ that often arise from ‘complex networks’.

Complexity theory studies the way in which large groups of individual components behave collectively by adapting to each other and the environment they create themselves. Although complexity only recently emerged as a separate research area, already today it is used to study hard problems in fields as diverse as biology, sociology and economics; for instance, explaining the way birds flock and how the economy self-organises. Complex systems go beyond the ‘hard sciences’, they are for instance not new to public policy makers. As early as the late 1960s and early 1970s, Horst Rittel, Melvin M. Webber, and C. West Churchman talked about wicked problems[6]. Using pre-complexity management terminologies, Rittel and Webber came up with 10 defining characteristics of wicked problems [7]. If we recast these characteristics into complexity terms, then wicked problems are essentially problems that are strongly history (path) dependent, where variables are strongly interdependent, and eliminating symptoms in one set of variables leads to the emergence of symptoms in another set of variables. In other words, ‘obvious’ solutions to wicked problems are merely treatments that suppress symptoms. This has recently been recognised by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy that released a booklet ‘Steering in Interwoven Dynamics’ about handling complexity and uncertainty in governance and policy[8]. In a world that is becoming progressively more interconnected and interwoven through infrastructural, communication and social networks, it is of crucial importance to be able to reason about this emerging complexity. Perhaps that’s why in a January 2000 newspaper interview, renowned Cambridge University physicist and best-selling author of the book A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking said, “the 21st century will be the century of complexity”.

The basic problem with complex systems is that if you try to understand how they work by taking them apart into their constituting components you lose what you were actually looking for in the first place. I heard Murray Gell-Mann once put it like this: “how wet is one molecule of water?” or equivalently one may ask ‘how much of a thought is present in one neuron?’ Describing these causalities and emergence of properties or self-organisation of phenomena, Nobel Laureate in Physics Philip W. Anderson concluded that “the whole is more than and also different from the sum of the parts”[9].

There is currently no theory of complex systems even though we have good mathematics, logic and algorithmics to study complexity related phenomena. Moreover, the jury is still out on whether complexity science is the best method to ‘integrate’ humanities, social and behavioural science with medical sciences and the colloquial hard sciences. To paraphrase Robert Pirsig: “what we need for this interdisciplinary approach is a scientific method that makes sure that we are not misled into thinking we know something we actually do not know”[10]. It might well be that complexity science, as a way to describe systemic aspects resulting from interacting components, is one of the better candidates for it.

But even with a solid scientific method to connect the dots in complex systems, there is no guarantee to discover truly novel insights into the bigger questions being asked. Key breakthroughs are often serendipitous. The history of scientific discovery is filled with ‘hmm, that is funny…’ moments. From the famous discovery of the antibiotic properties of Penicillium by Alexander Fleming[11] when he came back from holidays on 3 September 1928 and noted how a fungus had contaminated his somewhat messy laboratory and killed a culture of staphylococci he’d forgotten to clean up; to Wolfgang Wiltschko who locked up robins in a steel chamber to prove that radio frequencies allow birds to orient, but instead discovered on the 12th of October 1963 that it was the earth magnetic field that did the trick[12]; to Wilhelm Roentgen's November 8th, 1895 discovery of the X-ray when, working by himself in the lab trying to make electrons pass through air, he noticed that with a high charge, his vacuum tube caused a screen all the way across his lab to light up[13]; to Percy Spencer who noticed that microwaves from the radar set he was working on had melted the candy bar in his pocket and thus discovered the principle behind our current day microwave cookers[14]. There is an endless array of beautiful examples like these, across many fields of science and technology, but what they all have in common are scientists with playful and inquisitive minds.

Now, let’s roll back a bit. From the discussions that started in 2012 onwards, the toehold of an idea for an ambitious interdisciplinary institute became a foothold when the University of Amsterdam made the bold decision to set up its Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). To safeguard its intellectual independence and avoid questions about whether a certain research area fits of does not fit into a particular discipline, the IAS was placed outside the departments, reporting directly to the Executive Board of the University. The University decided to host the IAS in the centre of the old town of Amsterdam, at the hottest spot of the city next to the Allard Pierson Museum. The IAS truly adds a new dimension to the academic landscape by creating a place for ‘slow science’, where researchers from all disciplines can escape the academic rat race for a while and hit upon new ideas in a serendipitous way. An institute the University can be truly proud of in many ways. No wonder that, when the President of the University of Amsterdam asked me in 2016 to be IAS’ first Scientific Director, I hesitated for about one full second!

To have the audacity to work on the bigger societal and scientific questions and at the same time stay rooted in the scientific method we need “Competent Rebels” with curious minds, as Helga Nowotny formulated so eloquently at the official inauguration of the IAS on Sept 19th 2016[15]. It is therefore that the IAS decided to open its doors to specially selected scholars, ‘IAS fellows’ that dare to colour outside the lines. It is my sincere wish and hope that those who enter our beautiful scientific sanctuary will undergo a transformation not much different from Erwin Schrödinger’s when he arrived at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin and, with a deep sense of curiosity, reinvented himself from a theoretical physicist developing the foundations of quantum mechanics to one that asked himself: what is life? And if you ever come to me and ask “what are my duties, being part of the IAS family?”. Then I will answer quoting Abraham Flexner[16]: “You have no duties - only opportunities”.

Peter M.A. Sloot

[1] Erwin Schrödinger (1944), What is Life? The physical Aspects of the Living Cell. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42708.
[2] Kurzweil R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking Penguin.
[3] West G. (2017). SCALE. The universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. Penguin Press. ISBN-13: 978-1594205583.
[4] Panov A. D. (2017). Singularity of Evolution and Post-Singular Development. From Big Bang to Galactic Civilizations. A Big History Anthology. Volume III. The Ways that Big History Works: Cosmos, Life, Society and our Future / Ed. by B. Rodrigue, L. Grinin, A. Korotayev. Delhi: Primus Books. P. 370–402.
[5] Quote from interview:
[6] C. West Churchman, Horst Rittel, Melvin M. Webber (2010). Wicked problem. ISBN 9786130317645 978-613-0-31764-5.
[7] Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Jun., 1973) pp. 155-169.
[8] In Dutch.
[9] Phillip W. Anderson (2011). More and Different: Notes from a Thoughtful Curmudgeon. World Scientific ISBN-13: 978-9812350129
[10] Robert M. Pirsig (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into Values. Reprinted by HarperCollins Publishers 2010. ISBN-13: 9780060839871
[11] Brown, K. (2004). Penicillin Man: Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution. 320 pp. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3152-3.
[12] Wolfgang Wiltschko and Friedrich W. Merkel. Orientierung zugunruhiger Rotkehlchen im statische Magnetfeld. Verhandlungen der Deutschen Zoologischen Gesellschaft, 59:362-367, 1966.
[13] Roentgen's Discovery of X-Rays, APS news, Vol 10, Number 10, 2001.
[14] First Patent for the Microwave, APS news, Vol 24, Number 9, 2015.
[16] Abraham Flexner/Robbert Dijkgraaf (2017). The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. Princeton University Press 2017. ISBN 978-0-691-17476-1