A fundamentally comprehensible universe… but unattainable due to its complexity?


(Read it here in Spanish)

British physicist Stephen Wolfram suggests that we might soon know how the universe works at its most basic level (even why it works that way and not any other). Physics will have discovered, that day not so far away, all the elementary particles and forces operating in the cosmos. Wolfram and many other colleagues speculate that the rules will certainly be very simple, so much so that the basic laws of the universe could be written on a t-shirt. It would be the culmination of the so-called Theory of Everything, which Einstein chased in vain at the end of his life and led so many people -from Democritus to Stephen Hawking passing through Leibniz, Newton, or Maxwell- to wrack their brains. Would we have read the mind of God, as suggested by Hawking at the end of A brief history of time? Would science give the baton to technology, having reached the end of its theoretical way?…

Perhaps physics will have arrived to an end (at least the physics of our universe, maybe there will be a chance to investigate the dynamics and even creation of other hypothetical universes), but this Theory of Everything can tell us little about complex emergent phenomena: the knowledge of the fundamentals of the universe would not suffice to understand biology, psychology or sociology, to predict weather, the appearance of a disease or the outbreak of a crisis or conflict! The time will have come for sciences of complexity, with computing as a great tool to unravel the mysteries hidden in emergencies: telescopes and microscopes would cede the spotlight to powerful supercomputers capable of developing complex simulations from a few basic rules; i.e., to derive the behaviour of complex systems (biological, social, etc.) from their simple underlying principles.

There are research centers already devoted to the study of complexity, as the Santa Fe Institute (chaired by David Krakauer in New Mexico) or the Center for Complex Systems Research (CCSR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (founded by Stephen Wolfram), dedicated to the development of models and techniques (neural networks, cellular automata, nonlinear or chaotic dynamics, genetic algorithms, etc.) to describe complex systems and also extract from them global principles. This is a promising field of science, with a holistic vision compared to the conventional analytical approach of science: there is no other way to deal effectively with the phenomenon of complexity. Even so, as Wolfram says in an interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn, emergencies can set a limit to the human understanding. It is paradoxical and annoying that we can come to know the rules that govern the universe but, given the existence of a irreducible distance between its behavior and such underlying rules, we are doomed to never understand it in its entirety.


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