Jan 16th 2017

Emergent Phenomena in Science and Everyday Life (Coursera)

Before the advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, most scientists believed that it should be possible to predict the behavior of any object in the universe simply by understanding the behavior of its constituent parts. For instance, if one could write down the equations of motion for every atom in a system, it should be possible to solve those equations (with the aid of a sufficiently large computing device) and make accurate predictions about that system’s future.

However, there are some systems that defy this notion. Consider a living cell, which consists mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen along with other trace elements. We can study these components individually without ever imagining how combining them in just the right way can lead to something as complex and wonderful as a living organism! Thus, we can consider life to be an emergent property of what is essentially an accumulation of constituent parts that are somehow organized in a very precise way.

This course lets you explore the concept of emergence using examples from materials science, mathematics, biology, physics, and neuroscience to illustrate how ordinary components when brought together can collectively yield unexpected, surprising behaviors.

Note: The fractal image (Sierpinkski Triangle) depicted on the course home page was generated by a software application called XaoS 3.4, which is distributed by the Free Software Foundation under a GNU General Public License.