A New Science of Qualities


By John Brockman

Brian Goodwin looks on biology as an exact science, and sees the "new biology" less as a historical science than as an enterprise similar to physics in its emphasis on principles of order. He represents the structuralist approach, which resonates with D'Arcy Thompson's idea that evolutionary variation is constrained by structural laws; not all forms are possible. These ideas are now connected with new principles of dynamic emergence from complex systems, as developed within the sciences of complexity. Goodwin is strongly opposed to the reductionist view of the ultra-Darwinians, and much more comfortable with the complexity ideas of Stuart Kauffman and with Francisco Varela's holistic approach to biology. In this interview he explores the need to develop ways of perceiving and understanding wholes that are required within a science of qualities.


Complexity and Catastrophe


"My guess is that if the question of human extinction is ever posed clearly, people will say that it's all very well to say we've been a part of nature up to now, but at that turning point in the human race's history, it is surely essential that we do something about it; that we fix the genome, to get rid of the disease that's causing the instability, if necessary we clone people known to be free from the risk, because that's the only way in which we can keep the human race alive. A still, small voice may at that stage ask, but what right does the human race have to claim precedence for itself. To which my guess is the full-throated answer would be, sorry, the human race has taken a decision, and that decision is to survive. And, if you like, the hell with the rest of the ecosystem."

By John 

John Maddox, who recently stepped down as editor of Nature, occupies a unique place in today's culture. During the past 23 years he managed to build Nature into the premier publication of its kind, while still retaining the respect of the international science community for his intellect and writing.

In this discussion he talks about what we need to be concerned about: the increasing accumulation of data on a huge scale, lack of quantitative progress in biology, infection, impact, cloning, and the stability of the human genome. 



The Curator


 We create tools and we are molded by our use of them. In our lifetime technology has changed the world as it changes our minds. Consider the great power in new imaging techniques made possible through technological development. One example: during the moon landing in the late '60s I recall the stunning televised image of the earth as seen from the moon: night and day at the same time -- all times all the time -- no matter what the time. And my watch told me the correct time was 3 pm.

A generation later, the advent of the PC and the current communications revolution are changing our worlds and our minds to such an extent that the biggest change is the rate of change. Nowhere is this more evident than in the graphical imaging power of today's desktop machines.

Corbis is a company whose headquarters is outside Seattle in Bellevue, Washington. They also have offices in New York and London. The business is building a digital visual library, and it's an endeavor that's been underway for almost 7 years. According to Doug Rowan, president of Corbis, it has accelerated quite a bit in the last three years, and the company ended 1996 with nearly one million high resolution photographs richly catalogued in the library.

The central concept of Corbis is to provide a very rich set of digital visual images that attempt to capture the entire human experience throughout history, so it includes such diverse topics as fine art, science, nature, technology, wild life, history, celebrity, sports, etc. Corbis licenses pictures for people to use in print and electronic publishing and produces CD-ROM products such as "Leonardo da Vinci", "FDR", and "The Passion for Art."

Doug Rowan, president and CEO of Corbis, worked for 22 years at IBM in a variety of marketing positions. He left IBM 12 years ago and since that time has worked in several companies which did imaging on the desktop. It was that 12 years and that journey that gave him an obsession with the technology of digital content, and the way that digital content is going to change communication. He was an engineer who got drawn into sales and marketing, and he's been returning to technology every since.  



Alan Guth:Paul Davies is a good popularizer. He's also a good physicist. He's known mostly for his work in the area of attempts at quantum gravity, although he's not approaching exactly the same problem as either Lee Smolin or the people who do superstring theory are. He's the kind of person who takes a more pragmatic approach.


PAUL DAVIES is a theoretical physicist; professor of natural philosophy at the University of Adelaide; author of many books, including Other Worlds (1980), God and the New Physics (1983), Superforce (1984), The Cosmic Blueprint (1989), (with John Gribbin) The Matter Myth (1992),The Last Three Minutes (1994), Are We Alone (1995), About Time (1995).

Paul Davies' Edge Bio Page



Lee Smolin: The idea of inflation has probably been the most influential idea in cosmology in the last fifteen years, and it's Alan's idea. It's an idea that hasn't entirely convinced me, and I'm not alone in this, but it's had an enormous effect on everybody's thinking.?


ALAN GUTH is a physicist; Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT; author of The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins, forthcoming, 1997.

Alan Guth's Edge Bio Page



Alan Guth:Martin Rees is my favorite theoretical astrophysicist. Whatever subject in astrophysics you ask him about, he's incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly helpful as well. If you ask him a question, he'll go on and on explaining in detail what is known about that subject. He's just marvelous.


MARTIN REES is an astrophysicist and cosmologist; Royal Society Research Professor at King's College, Cambridge; author ofBefore the Beginning: Our Universe and Others, forthcoming, 1997, and, with John Gribbin,Cosmic Coincidences: Dark Matter, Mankind, and Anthropic Cosmology (1989).

Martin Rees's Edge Bio Page



Lee Smolin: Roger Penrose is the most important physicist to work in relativity theory except for Einstein. He's the most creative person and the person who has contributed the most ideas to what we do. He's one of the very few people I've met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius. Roger is the kind of person who has something original to say — something you've never heard before — on almost any subject that comes up.


ROGER PENROSE is a mathematical physicist; Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford; author of Techniques of Differential Topology in Relativity (1972), Spinors and Space- time, with W. Rindler, 2 vols. (1984, 1986), The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (1989), Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness (1994), (with Stephen Hawking) The Nature of Space and Time (1996); coeditor with C.J. Isham and Dennis W. Sciama of Quantum Gravity 2: A Second Oxford Symposium (1981), and with C.J. Isham of Quantum Concepts in Space and Time (1986).

Roger Penrose's Edge Bio Page



W. Daniel Hillis: Doyne was in that group of physicists at Los Alamos who were starting to think about complexity, nonlinear phenomena, and adaptive systems. They began to realize that things like "strange attractors" were really ubiquitous in any kind of system — economic systems and biological systems, not just physical systems. That was an incredibly important idea, because it allowed all these people to start talking to each other.


J. DOYNE FARMER is a physicist, an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and a cofounder of Prediction Company, an investment firm. 

J. Doyne Farmer's Edge Bio Page



In a manner of speaking, the physicists came to the wrong book. It is interesting to note that for the most part they have little to say about the other scientists in this book, and, similarly, the other people do not comment on their work. This may have to do with the fact that the language of physics is mathematics; it may also be that ideas about complexity and evolution have not had the same relevance for cosmology and physics as they have for biology and computer science. Astronomers have studied the spectra of light emitted by distant stars billions of years ago, and have so far found no indication that the laws of physics have changed over this epoch.


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