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Complex Systems Are Focus of New Research Institute

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October 19, 2004 | by Megan Fellman
Julio Ottino

Julio Ottino

The evolution of languages. The Internet. Human consciousness. The spread of disease such as HIV and smallpox. The U.S. power grid. The transfer of knowledge within organizations. Even a termite colony. These disparate systems all share one important characteristic: they are complex systems.

The emerging science of complexity has attracted Northwestern University faculty from a wide range of disciplines, including engineering, business, natural sciences, education, medicine, law and the social sciences. To take advantage of this shared interest, the University has established a new research enterprise, the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), whose goal is to stimulate path-breaking research of complex systems across traditional boundaries.

Prominent experts from across the country, representing fields from physics and computer science to economics and biology, will converge Oct. 29-30 at the institute’s Conference on Complex Systems, an event held for the Northwestern community to help launch the new institute.

“Investigating how complex networks operate, by looking at them as a whole and not just their individual parts, is the only way to make sensible decisions about them,” said Julio M. Ottino, Robert R. McCormick Institute Professor and Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “For example, better understanding of the power grid or the propagation of HIV infection could help us learn how to prevent a massive blackout or control the spread of a devastating disease.”

“Complexity theory provides a very useful tool to analyze social organizations,” said Daniel Diermeier, IBM Distinguished Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice, Department of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School of Management. “Applications range from traffic patterns to the study of voting, to knowledge management and innovation.”

Ottino and Diermeier are co-directors of the institute. Ottino’s research includes chaos and self-organization and the modeling of complex systems. Diermeier draws on game theory for his research, which focuses on mass social and political phenomena, such as revolutions, riots and boycotts.

“Even though the institute faculty represent many different parts of the University, they are collaborating in new and creative ways in research and teaching,” said Provost Lawrence B. Dumas. “Northwestern has an opportunity to quickly become the leading program among peer institutions in this interdisciplinary area.”

Complex systems are robust, adaptable and highly interconnected, and they display organization without a central organizing principle. For example, no one designed the interconnectedness of the World Wide Web, the U.S. power grid or the metabolic processes within a cell. Complex systems have a large number of elements, building blocks or agents, capable of interacting with each other and with their environment. But even if you understand the working of the parts it is hard to predict the system’s behavior as a whole.

A complex system is not the same thing as a complicated system. Complicated systems, such as a Boeing 747-400, are the product of human design, which is often the handiwork of engineers. Because complicated systems do not adapt, said Ottino, “one key defect may bring the entire system to a halt, which is why redundancy is built into designs when system failure is not an option.”

Possible connections between complex systems provide fertile breeding grounds for researchers looking beyond their traditional disciplines for breakthroughs in their own fields. For instance, as scientists study the structure of the Internet, they are discovering parallel structures in other systems as varied as metabolic pathways and power grids, with possible applications for understanding the transmission of infections such as HIV.

“Scientific breakthroughs frequently happen at the edges of established discipline-based knowledge,” says Ottino. “Ideas originating in one field often find successful applications in other fields, sometimes leading to revolutionary conceptual changes.”

NICO faculty members include Luis Amaral, chemical and biological engineering; Craig Bina, geological sciences; Gary Borisy, cell and molecular biology; Sunil Chopra, managerial economics and decision sciences; Bartosz Grzybowski, chemical and biological engineering; Eszter Hargittai, communication studies, sociology and Institute for Policy Research; Vassily Hatzimanikatis, chemical and biological engineering; Wally Hopp, industrial engineering and management sciences; Rick Morimoto, biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology; Gary Morson, Slavic languages and literatures; Janet Pierrehumbert, linguistics; Mark Ratner, chemistry; Stan Reiter, economics, managerial economics and decision sciences; George Schatz, chemistry; Sara Solla, physics and physiology; Bruce Spencer, statistics; Brian Uzzi, management and organizations; Andrew Wachtel, Slavic languages and literatures; Jon Widom, biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology; and Uri Wilensky, computer science, learning sciences and cognitive science.

Information about the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems can be found at http://www.northwestern.edu/research/nico/.

Conference on Complex Systems

The Conference on Complex Systems, sponsored by the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, will be held Oct. 29-30 in the Tribune Auditorium at the James L. Allen Center. The event is free and open to the Northwestern community.

The conference will feature a series of talks and panel discussions designed to catalyze discussion across a variety of disciplines.

Among the speakers, Zoltan Toroczkai, acting deputy director of the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, will address a threat to public health: “Exploring the Fabric of Contact Networks for Monitoring and Mitigating Smallpox Epidemics: An Agent-based Approach to Decision Making.”

“Complexity research can help you predict the system’s behavior following this or that decision,” said Toroczkai. “A lot is known about smallpox, but we can’t foresee what will happen if an epidemic breaks out in a large city. In situations like this it is very hard to make good decisions. Whom do you vaccinate? The bus driver? The schoolteacher? What about quarantine? What buildings should you close? Offices? Shopping malls? At Los Alamos National Laboratory we have recently built a detailed computer simulation based on key factors that include census and statistical data and real-world information about people’s traffic patterns. The simulation is used to generate epidemic contact networks and to ultimately help officials make intelligent decisions about vaccination and quarantine.

“Nature does not classify complex problems as physics, biology or human behavior problems. That is our interpretation. We need to bring a wide range of expertise to bear on a complex problem if we really want to solve it. One expertise is not enough.”

Other conference speakers will delve into subjects such as “Evolution of Language,” “Bringing Genomes to Life: The Use of the Genome-scale Models,” “Patterns of Connections in Complex Systems” and “Evolving Trading Strategies and Financial Features.”

For more information on the conference, contact Meg Stuart at Kellogg at (847) 491-2758 or m-stuart@kellogg.northwestern.edu. To register go to http://www.northwestern.edu/research/nico/.

Topics: Research