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The Complexity Brake

Paul G. Allen:

"We call this issue the complexity brake. As we go deeper and deeper in our understanding of natural systems, we typically find that we require more and more specialized knowledge to characterize them, and we are forced to continuously expand our scientific theories in more and more complex ways."

"The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find. Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more. Put another way, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understandings."

This is great... I've been looking for a way to express this phenomenon for a while now. In the mass media, you get the impression that everything's under control, we pretty much understand how the world works.

My wife is a biologist, working on L. pneumophila, the cause of Legionnaires Disease. I've gone to several conferences with her, and it is clear that the closer we look at bacteria, the more difficult they are to understand. Basic bacterial reproduction is extremely complex and varies according to circumstances. Bacteria are able to communicate amongst themselves ("quorum sensing") but no one knows how.

I often think of how we retrospectively mock the Victorians for their limited understanding of science (measuring skulls etc.), but are we really that far advanced compared to the 19th century? We're only scratching the surface.

I'm learning anatomy in order to improve my drawing. I decided to be thorough, and it immediately became clear that my previous understanding of our bones and muscles was incredibly superficial. The more I looked learned about the muscular system, the more everything was interconnected and it started to seem like an arbitrary decision whether a muscle was single or a group of muscles, etc. Many muscles vary routinely between individuals or are absent in half the population.

People are already talking about modifying the climate artificially. I can't imagine that we understand it enough to be able to have a positive effect.

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