Emergent Properties
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Emergent Properties • Posted: Jan 19, 2010 13:09:16Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

There is a relatively new idea floating around the sciences that hasn't yet made it into everyday thought and discussion: emergent properties. The concept describes phenomena we often experience, but don't really recognize. One dictionary at my disposal offers this definition: "arising and existing only as a phenomenon of independent parts working together, and not predictable on the basis of their properties."

That's a bit confusing, but it needn't be. Take, for instance, three notes on a piano, any three. Play just one of them and you have sound, but not music. Play all three in sequence and you potentially have the theme for a symphony or song. Play all of them simultaneously and you get interesting harmony or annoying dissonance. Neither harmony nor melody are readily apparent from just the sound of individual notes. Music is then a potential emergent property of independent notes.

Many things work that way. Each of us is a collection of cells, but our specific personalities and talents could hardly be predicted from studying those cells separately. As individuals, we often head out on our daily tasks with little conscious thought that too many of us might be planning to take a similar route at the same time. The emergent property? A traffic jam. Too many of us turn our air conditioners to high during a particularly hot day and the emergent property could be an electrical brown out. Too many of us burn fossil fuels during our lifetimes and the emergent property will be ocean acidification and death to all those fish we like to eat. You get the picture.

Humans are currently struggling through a period of realization that collectively we are having a huge impact on the planet we inhabit. It's a change. We realize our actions have consequence, but locally. We push and our neighbor feels pushed. He or she pushes back and we feel pushed. We don't consider the heat we've both generated, the oxygen we've both used, the potential for coordination we've wasted, the folly we risk when too many of us hold onto and act upon ill-conceived ideas, etc., etc. It really is time to change our thinking, reeducate ourselves to the best ideas and information out there, and act accordingly. There are too many of us not to. And the risk of unintended dangerous emergent consequences is far too high.

Monday, May 4th, 2009
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