The 2,014th Meeting of the Society

September 17, 1993

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Reflections on the New Science of Complexity

M. Mitchell Waldrop

Author and Physicist

About the Lecture

Scientists tell us that the universe started out in an immense, but formless explosion known as the Big Bang. Ever since then, the universe has been governed by a tendency toward disorder, dissolution and decay. Yet today we see a universe that isn't formless at all. It has managed to bring forth galaxies, stars, planets and molecules. Here on Earth, nature has brought forth bacteria, plants, animals, ecosystems and societies—a bewildering variety of responsive, adaptive and alive entities. These entities actively try to turn whatever happens to their advantage. But how? How did such highly organized structures come to exist in the face of the cosmic compulsion for disorder? Is that compulsion matched by an equally powerful compulsion for order, structure and organization? And if so, how can both processes be going on at once? These questions have troubled scientists and theologians for centuries. In this presentation, Mr. Waldrop describes how some of the answers are beginning to emerge from the new science of complexity: a synergistic mix of ideas coming from the forefront of physics, biology, computer science, and economics. The scientists pursuing this new discipline of an underlying unity believe that they are forging the first rigorous alternative to the kind of linear, reductionist thinking that has dominated science since the time of Newton. In short, they believe they are creating the sciences of the twenty-first century.

About the Speaker

Mr. Waldrop earned his Ph.D. in elementary particle physics at the University of Wisconsin in 1975. During his 10 years as a senior writer at the journal Science, he gained a national reputation for his reporting on a wide variety of subjects, including physics, space, astronomy, computers, artificial intelligence, molecular biology, psychology, and neuroscience. Mr. Waldrop has written two books, Man-Made Minds, which explores the fast-moving field of artificial intelligence, and Complexity, which chronicles the creation of the Santa Fe Institute. He is now at work on a new book about software.