The Analytic Aspect of Patterns In Nature

A recent post from Brad Dutton on my web page raised a question which I chose to answer and I’m repeating here. He asked: “…I am starting to wonder if there is a standard way to analyze nature. Something that might even be like a software algorithm. So your analytic aspect is what interests me. Do you have a section strictly to do with the analytic aspect ?”

I answered, in part, as follows:

Until recently, Western science has taken the worldview that any knowledge can be gained by breaking something down to its lowest common denominators and examining same by predictions using mathematics. The process is called “reductionism”. It has resulted in many “mathematical laws” that attempt to predict the actions of components (Newton’s law, etc.etc.). In fact, most Patterns in Nature books that I’ve read (typically written by mathematicians or their advocates) insist that patterns can be described through mathematical laws.That is a very incomplete point of view.

For centuries, a different view of nature has been held by the Confucian “Li”. A very good explanation can be viewed at:
http://liology.wordpress.com/category/chinese-thought/the-li-series/.

The Li says that nature is described by organizing principles rather than mathematical laws. The Li emphasizes a profound truth in nature – that everything is connected. Everything is a complex system. It goes on to explain that nature needs to be described as a set of organizing principles. (not as a set of mathematical laws as proposed by the reductionist paradigm)

We’ve known for some time that the behavior of complex systems cannot be predicted by mathematical laws. They can only be described algorithmically where the final outcome is never predictable or known. This gradual shift to a systematic paradigm by Western science has taken place only in the last 20-30 years. But, if you are looking for a way to analyze nature, I believe you’ll need to start by thinking “simulation” rather than “computation”.

What makes all of this very interesting, Brad, is that a guy named Geoffrey West has been recently suggesting that there is a “unity” in nature (he never dares to couch it using that term) that can be described using a mathematical law that we know as a power law. He suggests that many interrelating natural phenomena, at a systems level, are interrelated by their scaling power law exponent which is some multiple of “1/4”. He goes on to explain that the proposed reason is that natural systems are all connected and require some form of network architecture to be connected. He suggests that these networks are scale-free and have a dimension of “1/4” or a multiple of that. Much of this can be described with the Pareto Distribution which is a power law distribution. None of this is “exact”!! None is predictable. But it may now be explainable.

To quote West: “… biological systems obey a host of remarkably simple and systematic empirical scaling laws which relate how organismal features change with size over many orders of magnitude. These include fundamental quantities like metabolic rate (the rate at which energy must be supplied to sustain an organism) , time scales (like lifespan and heart rate) and sizes (such as the length of the aorta or the height of a tree trunk). It is remarkable that all of these can be expressed as power law relationships with exponents that are simple multiples of ¼ (e.g. ¼, ¾, 3/8) . They appear to be valid for all forms of life whether it be mammalian, avian, reptilian, unicellular or plant-like. These “laws” are clearly telling us something important about the way life is organized and the constraints under which life has evolved. ”

To me, in your search of a way to analyze nature or to organize nature’s “information”, you are dwelling in a very important field. Unlike Western science’s reductionism, however, with West’s ideas you are on a path where your “analysis” would be by examining nature’s organizing principles instead of trying to predict nature through impossible mathematical laws.

In the course of your work, I would be looking strongly at self-organizing systems (emergence), self-similarity (fractals), network theory (particularly scale-free and small-world networks), and scaling (power law growth and change).

Below are some references (to name only a few) that I’ve found useful:

http://complexityblog.com/papers/aaron/Amaral-Complex%20Networks.pdf

http://research.yahoo.com/files/w_ARS.pdf

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/courses/2004/cscs535/review.pdf

http://hep.ucsb.edu/courses/ph6b_99/0111299sci-scaling.html

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12877984

Google “Geoffrey West” where there are at least two of his lectures on YouTube where he talks about the idea of a universal scaling (power law) exponent. West is the “man” on this subject.

http://www.alliancemagazine.org/en/content/interview-geoffrey-west

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7108406426776765294#

http://people.ccmr.cornell.edu/~ginsparg/Phys446-546/gbwscl99.pdf

Google “Strogatz”, “Duncan Watts”, or “Albert-Laszlo Barabasi” for all sorts of material on netwoks.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/steven_strogatz_on_sync.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-organization

Many more. But, this should give you a start.

South Georgia Island – Crown Jewel Of The Southern Ocean

I am the albatross that waits for you at the bottom of the earth.
I am the forgotten soul of the dead sailors who crossed Cape Horn
From all the seas of the world
But they did not die in the furious waves.
Today they fly in my wings to eternity.
In the last trough of the Antarctic winds
— Sara Vial

Being a whale scientist, I thought that my first experience at South Georgia Island would be to see remnants of the age of whaling and to absorb the reality of the Antarctic heroic era. There is no doubt that I lived a bit of history as I stood in front of the Stromness manager’s villa where Shackleton ended his famous odyssey. I was moved as I read Browning’s passage on Shackelton’s headstone at Grytvyken. And, I felt the ghosts of whaling captains and whale station workers as I walked alone among the ruins of two whaling stations where, for over a hundred years, man slaughtered huge numbers of marine mammals — bringing them close to extinction.

But, my South Georgia Island experience was more mystical than factual or scientific. Here I saw a nearly pristine place. I say “nearly” because the remnants of whaling and sealing still exist but the people and ships are gone. Nature has once again taken over. Truly, animal life in a pristine way has reclaimed this wonderfully remote place.

South Georgia Island is located in the Southern Ocean over 2000 km east of the southern tip of Argentina. It is near the convergence of two major ocean currents where there is considerable upwelling of nutrients. This results in a vitality of life. South Georgia is a place where nature has been left to do its own thing without human influence. All while towering, rugged peaks endowed with dotted snow poke their heads through cloudy mists – like a maiden reluctant to reveal her beauty all at once. One can lie on the tussock grass and literally feel nature through all of the senses. One’s skin feels the force of nature. Driving winds, horizontal rain and cutting snow bring an acute sense of awareness. The eyes absorb vaulting peaks, a sea full of bergs, billowing tussock, and rolling heath.

One’s ears hear a mixture of sounds – seals defending their territory, penguin chicks and seal pups calling out, pairs mating. These sounds reach the ear all at once to create a dissonant but energizing music that no human could ever produce.

One is able to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel all at once. Almost a sensory overload – perhaps that is the emotion. It all does something wonderful to my soul.

But then there is the enormity of it all. The macro rather than the micro. The rugged interrelationships that are revealed in this enormity. The delicacy of life. The ability to survive in such a harsh environment. There is space for all – even though it is an island. But yet, the island is not the creature’s habitat. It’s merely a waypoint for those creatures who visit its plains, grasses, and cliffs to breed, birth, and molt. Except for the predatory and scavenging birds and the newborn, no one eats here.

As I absorbed this grandeur, I found that my intellect was also a sense. One quickly realizes that things are not really random. There are patterns. The patterns of procreation and birth. The patterns of groups. The patterns of sound. In these patterns I sensed an underlying intelligence.

I witnessed elephant seal newborn pups immediately move to mother’s nipple just after birth. I saw skuas sense an impending birth or death – waiting for the nourishment of a dead seal or the placenta released after a pup’s birth. I noted some marvelous automatic reflexes. A gull in flight flaps its wings or glides. And ever so slightly, the bird’s tail is moving up and down as it acts as an elevator or air brake.

How does a bird acquire these skills? A wandering albatross doesn’t teach its chick how to fly. In fact the parents leave long before the juvenile makes its maiden flight. Yet, with lots of practice on the ground, the chick does gain confidence (knowing somehow that it must get airborne to survive) and soars away. How does the chick figure this out?

The king penguins on South Georgia were apparently communicating with their vocalizations. I observed serial vocal patterns between king penguin groups – one then another. All along, the juvenile penguins were close by as if to take it all in.

I’ve visited South Georgia twice now. I’ve concluded that this place is the crown jewel of the Southern Ocean. It is an exciting, remote, and pristine island that teems with birth, life, and death.

South Georgia is a place where life begins and ends in its rawest form. It is not just a place. It is a congruence of unspeakable beauty with the rawest of life energy. One needs to find his own mound of tussock grass, settle in, and let the senses be filled. In doing so, one brings his soul in tune with all of this beauty. And that’s what I did.

Farewell To Stromness

The snow was blowing horizontally – biting and cutting my face. With my camera in hand, I laid on the snowy beach among the muck of animal feces and dead seal pups — crushed by testosterone laden males who were fighting to fornicate with the ladies of their earned harem.

We had traveled the rough seas of the Drake Passage, the graveyard ofCatcher Boat countless ships and their sailors – whose souls were gently guarded by the Wandering Albatross. Near South Georgia’s abandoned Stromness whaling station, the shore boat traversed the rough, sharp, brackish ice as it struggled to a snowy beach that greeted us with a cacophony of shrieks, trumpeting, and roars of life, of death, and the ecstasy of fornicating three ton bull elephant seals as they manhandled their harem.

Through all of this, among the mass of scat, I was in resonance with a wild nature now devoid of man. A far different kind of life and death struggle than that rendered by man’s killing and processing of the right whale at this place.

I was at the old (and now defunct) Stromness whaling station on South Georgia Island where the beached catcher boats were rotting away. I was watching not man’s brand of death that is never followed by life. Instead, through the driving elements, I was a privileged guest witnessing Nature’s dynamic web of life. A way of death that kindles new birth – new life.

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