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does emergence matter?

Flora Shepherd's picture
Earlier on in the semester, doug wrote "I think the study of "emergence" can be seen as a luxury topic. People may see it as non-critical, and do not see it as a field of inquiry that will immediately solve real problems. (I beg to differ). I suspect that the few women and other underrepresented groups are attracted, first, to the major topics, and slowly diffuse into "fringe" areas." This sentiment rang all too true to me. Emergence may attempt to explain and describe the physical world, but constructing computer models does not feel like solving everyday problems. It feels like playing games. I didn't begin seriously studying science until college. And, four years later, I still find myself fighting my distaste for disciplines that feel so distanced from the rest of the world. It is sometimes hard to justify studying an obscure discipline. What is the value in studying emergence? I found a great deal of solace in a blog post by a great blogger, Young Female Scientist. She writes "One of the only things that keeps me in science is knowing- not wondering in the slightest, actually- that my project is something that I can do now, and that science will be better off than if I left. " As the class winds down, I find that this is an extremely comforting thought. Our thoughts and contributions do matter. And even if we do not have the answers to emergence now, we have come closer. She adds "There are plenty of examples of stories in science that got dropped for say, 30 years, and then picked back up again. Or 100 years." We probably will drop the blog, more or less, but who knows if someone will stumble upon our musings, extrapolate a new conclusion and sketch out a discovery that turns into a breakthrough? Even tiny steps can further scientific knowledge.


LauraKasakoff's picture

"Even tiny steps can further scientific knowledge." Your post really hit a chord with me, Flora. I like the thought that even the act of novices playing around with scientific ideas can increase the pool of scientific knowledge. This will sound silly, but this year I have often felt that studying mathematics was kind of a "luxury topic" in certain ways. Sometimes I was worried that it was selfish to study mathematics because, even though I enjoyed it, what good would come from it? Who could I help with math? But it is impossible to tell from the onset what will make a difference in the future... One should study and play with what "interests" them, and the value will emerge later... Not to miss an opportunity to quote Oprah... "What I know is, is that if you do work that you love, and the work fulfills you, the rest will come." - Oprah Winfrey
DavidRosen's picture

I feel like the ideas behind emergence are extremely relevant to the real world. Everything from planet formation, weather patterns, and ecosystem evolution to tree growth, social systems, and basic physics are governed by decentralized systems. While what we are doing in class (such as discussing Hofstadter's Copycat program) is not always directly relevant to real problems, the complex systems that we can study with emergent principles definitely are.
Doug Blank's picture

"what we are doing in class ... is not always directly relevant to real problems" Yikes! I was trying to directly show why emergence matters to me. Sure, emergence can help explain the weather. But what if it could help understand who we are, and shed light on the most mysterious processes that we know of in the universe: human intelligence?
DavidRosen's picture

I think the ideas of emergence are essential to understanding human intelligence in any real sense, but I am not convinced that Metacat in particular uses these ideas in an important way; it has too much intelligent design and specialization for me to see it as really relevant to actual human cognition.
Kathy Maffei's picture

In reading this thread, I had to wonder if maybe this sense of disconnect between the theoretical / experimental and the applicable / practical - in emergence, mathematics, physics, or other sciences - is part of the reason that there are less women in those fields. It seems that there may be something about seeing the direct connection, the immediate results, that makes other fields more "justifiable" for certain people. So, why is it that some people feel the need for their work to be justifiable in this sense? Could this explain why there are less women in the science and math fields? I'm going to take an uneducated stab at a partial explanation, but I want to be clear that I'm in no way trying to psychoanalyze other posters here - there are many possible reasons for a person's opinion on something. It's said that women tend not to self-promote as much as men do. At the same time, women still lag behind in wages and in accreditation. I admit to having felt, at times in my life, that as a woman I needed to accomplish a bit extra to prove myself (not at BMC). When accomplishments are not clear-cut and are dependent on peer review, I can imagine women could feel (or actually be) disadvantaged. Maybe Doug or Paul could offer some insight on this.
PaulGrobstein's picture

It is certainly true that people who "tend not to self-promote as much" will also tend to do less well in most peer-review environments. I'm not sure though that I see how that relates to differences in peopes' conceptions of what are/are not "justifiable" fields.
Kathy Maffei's picture

If you are not comfortable (and/or feel disadvantaged in) promoting yourself and your accomplishments, you might be happier in a field where results (and their worth) are obvious and your efforts are easy to justify (or just don't need justification).
LauraKasakoff's picture

There is a tendency for women to be marginalized in the sciences. Often women have to prove themselves first, while their male peers do not have to fight to have their voices heard. If, by the same token, some women are not self-promoting, how can the succeed in a discipline where they first must prove themselves? This is only magnified if women want to work in a scientific field that isn't well - established. Perhaps this rejection from the sciences causes women to reject the fields as a counter attack. Sadly in this way both the sciences and women suffer.
SunnySingh's picture

Flora, Maybe I'm misinterpreting you, so maybe you can clarify things a bit. In what ways is science obscure? Personally, I find science in general to be more concrete than, say, the abstract discussions that go on in a philosophy class. I guess I can see how science can be a bit 'abstract'; in that case, what would categorize as not being obscure?