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Journal of Big History
Number of Followers: 4  

  This is an Open Access Journal Open Access journal
ISSN (Print) 2475-3610
Published by International Big History Association Homepage  [1 journal]
  • The Problem with the Concept of Complexity

    • Authors: Maximillian Barnett
      Pages: 1 - 17
      Abstract: The concept of complexity is one of the most fundamental of big history fundamentals. The concept of complexity has great potential for understanding the shared qualities of otherwise disparate systems, explaining large-scale change, and comparing different types of complex systems, including human societies. Given this potential, it seems extraordinary that the concept has not penetrated the academic zeitgeist more thoroughly. I argue that four key roadblocks are holding the concept of complexity, and by extension, big history, from broader acceptance in the academy: first, the term “complexity” in its technical usage is not intuitive to people outside the fields of big history and complexity science; second, there is a lack of consensus even among big history scholars on the definition of complexity; third, measuring large-scale change over thousands, millions, or billions of years may lead to imprecision and oversimplification; and fourth, complexity, while an objective indicator of change, is closely tied to contested, subjective, culturally-specific notions of human progress. This paper argues that the concept of complexity, despite these roadblocks, has significant utility in fields that consider large-scale change. Ultimately, this paper aims to provide more clarity and precision around the concept of complexity to strengthen one of the key foundations of big history.
      PubDate: 2024-01-10
      DOI: 10.22339/jbh.v7i3.7101
      Issue No: Vol. 7, No. 1 (2024)
       
  • Reexamining “Free Energy Rate Density” as a Complexity Metric

    • Authors: Ken Solis
      Pages: 19 - 28
      Abstract: Cosmic Evolution, by Eric J. Chaisson is arguably one of the original “core” texts of big history. Despite being published over 20 years ago, it is still relevant for its explanation of the cosmological and thermodynamic underpinnings of the evolution of complex systems over the span of time. It was also a pioneering work because it proposed that we can quantify the degree of complexity of systems by determining the quantity of the “free energy rate density” or FERD (abbreviated as “Ωm” in Cosmic Evolution) that flows through a system. Although Chaisson advises that his correlations of FERD to complexity degree is subject to various limitations and generalizations, careful analysis of the arguments and examples used to support FERD indicates that it is even less likely to be as reliable and quantifiable than he purports for at least the following reasons:
      1. The author offers a relatively short list of criteria for a system to qualify being “complex” that in turn results in the inclusion of systems that are not classified as complex by usual criteria.
      2. Free energy rate density is not compared against other complexity metrics and subsequently seems to serve as its own “gold standard.” The lack of comparisons results in a tautological argument and sometimes questionable conclusions.
      3. The argument for FERD sometimes deviates from the hypothesis that FERD is a good way to measure the degree of a system’s complexity to a claim that it also measures complex functions and structures as well.
      4. The FERD that he reports are often actually for the total energy flow through a system. Hence, a much more efficient complexity might only appear to be less complex.
      5. Complex systems have many variables that can confound attempts to make reliable and precise generalizations, including good metrics for their degree.
      PubDate: 2024-01-10
      DOI: 10.22339/jbh.v7i1.7102
      Issue No: Vol. 7, No. 1 (2024)
       
  • What can we learn from a master plot of energy rate versus mass for a very
           wide variety of (complex) systems'

    • Authors: Martin van Duin
      Pages: 29 - 78
      Abstract: Mass and energy rate (ER) data have been collected for a wide variety of (complex) systems from the biological, cultural, and cosmological realms. They range from the cytochrome oxidase protein (10-22 kg and 6x10-19 W) to the observable universe (1.5x1053 kg and 1048 W) and, thus, span 75 mass and 66 ER orders of magnitude. Many of these systems are relevant for the big history (BH) narrative, i.e., the development of complexity over “big time” from the Big Bang up to the human society on Earth of today. The purpose of this paper is not per se to describe their history though, but to explore a master plot of ER vs. mass. Notably, the development of systems over big time has followed a rather tortuous path criss-crossing over this ER vs. mass master plot. The true mass of the system as a whole is used (for example trees including the non-living wood, living organisms including their intrinsic water, and social systems including the built constructs), because these inactive parts are essential for the performance of the system and facilitate its ER. A double logarithmic master plot of all ER vs. mass data shows clusters of data points. To some extent, this provides quantitative support for the distinction between the (sub-)realms, which is based on a qualitative description of their material structure and energy processing. In the master plot, small systems with low mass and ER converge into larger systems with larger mass and ER, which is typically accompanied by a decrease of the energy rate density (ERD = ER/mass). Correlation of ER with mass for various groups of systems demonstrates both sub- and supra-linear scaling with the power law β constant varying between 0.5 and 4.0, showing that the mechanisms of self-organisation are quite different for the corresponding system groups. The combination of convergence and scaling with β always larger than zero explains why the ER & mass data points fall in a diagonal band with a width of 17 orders of magnitude. ER and mass have changed over wide ranges during the evolution of groups of systems, suggesting that evolution can be viewed as a process of systems exploring a larger ER vs. mass area until they run into ER and/or mass limitations. Indeed, there is a diagonal ER vs. mass limit for stable systems in all realms, corresponding to an ERD value of around 105 W/kg. Systems with ER & mass combinations above this limit, such as bombs, super-novae and cosmological transients, are unstable and “explosive”. This raises the interesting question of whether such an ERD maximum puts a limit on the development of complexity over big time. It seems that the low, right side of the master plot is empty. However, it is argued here that it is full of systems with low ER, such as dormant, living organisms, technological systems with their power adjusted or even switched off, as well as cooling, cosmological objects. Such systems are typically considered of less interest in a BH context, but they are viewed here as simple, complex systems which are out of equilibrium with matter, energy and information stored in their structure. While ERD appears to increase with the ‘advancement’ of systems over big time [5,51,52], there are quite some confounding factors regarding the efficacy of ERD as a metric for complexity in BH. For example, ERD decreases during the lifetime of a human and the human society (the mass of human-made constructs has grown faster than the global energy consumption), as well as during the evolution of living organisms and stars, whereas complexity is considered to increase. High ERD values of system parts may be illustrative for the complexity of the larger system, but are not representative for ERD of the system itself. Machines with an increased efficiency of energy conversion have a lower ERD, but could be considered more complex. The smallest and largest ERD values observed for the various realms appear to correlate with activity level and reciprocally with size, which do not per se reflect complexity. It is hoped that the raw data collected and the major trends observed in this paper will offer new insights into various aspects of the evolution of the universe over big time, and serve as an important resource for other related studies.
      PubDate: 2024-01-10
      DOI: 10.22339/jbh.v7i1.7103
      Issue No: Vol. 7, No. 1 (2024)
       
 
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