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Experts from many disciplines to connect at Conference on Complex Systems

By Deborah Leigh Wood

2/1/2004 - Prominent experts from many spheres will converge at the Conference on Complex Systems, an interdisciplinary, intra-university event to be held Oct. 24 and 25 in the Tribune Auditorium at the James. L. Allen Center.

"This conference presents a unique opportunity for the Northwestern community to experience the thinking of the leading minds in the emerging science of complexity, with applications ranging from physics and the life sciences to economics and management," says conference organizer Daniel Diermeier, IBM Distinguished Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice, Department of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School.

He says the field of complexity research provides unifying frameworks for highly interconnected systems with many agents with applications ranging from biochemical pathways to neural networks to social interactions such as trading floors, supply chains and the World Wide Web.

As befits its multidisciplinary nature, the Conference on Complex Systems is being sponsored by the Kellogg School of Management, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, where Diermeier’s co-organizer, Julio M. Ottino, is the Robert R. McCormick Institute Professor and Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical Engineering.

The conference is designed to facilitate transfer of knowledge across traditional boundaries, Diermeier says, in the hope of encouraging path-breaking research across disciplines.

Conference speakers will delve into subjects such as “Understanding Genetic Regulatory Networks,” “The Evolution of Ethnocentric Behavior,” “Complexity and Dynamic Self-Assembly” and “The Economy as a Complex Adaptive System.”

“ Scientific breakthroughs frequently happen at the edges of established discipline-based knowledge,” says Ottino, the conference’s co-organizer. “Ideas originating in one field often find successful applications in other fields, sometimes leading to revolutionary conceptual changes.”

A recent example of complexity at work (or not) is the recent blackout that knocked out power in portions of Michigan, Ohio, New York and Canada. The calamity represents a “cascading failure,” which is “common in most complex networks, writes Albert-Laszlo Barabasi in an Aug. 16 commentary in The New York Times.

Barabasi is a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, author of Linked: The New Science of Networks and one of the featured speakers at the Conference on Complex Systems.

Other cascading failures, he says, “take place on the Internet, where traffic is rerouted to routers ill equipped to handle extra traffic.” They also occur in the world economy: “When the International Monetary Fund in 1997 pressured the central banks of several Pacific nations to limit their credit,” Barabasi says, it set in motion a “cascading monetary failure that left behind scores of failed banks and corporations around the world.”

Barabasi warns that, “unless we are willing to cut the connections, the only way to change the world is to improve all nodes and links.”

And that, Diermeier says, is what the Conference on Complex Systems is all about - at least for the network of science. Detailed information about the conference can be found here.