Is life really that complex? | Hannah Fry | TEDxUCL

Is life really that complex? | Hannah Fry | TEDxUCL


Thanks very much. I am Hannah Fry, the badass. And today I’m asking the question: Is life really that complex? Now, I’ve only got nine minutes
to try and provide you with an answer, so what I’ve done
is split this neatly into two parts: part one: yes; and later on, part two: no. Or, to be more accurate: no? (Laughter) So first of all, let me try and define
what I mean by “complex.” Now, I could give you
a host of formal definitions, but in the simplest terms, any problem in complexity is something
that Einstein and his peers can’t do. So, let’s imagine —
if the clicker works … there we go. Einstein is playing a game of snooker. He’s a clever chap, so he knows
that when he hits the cue ball, he could write you an equation and tell you exactly where the red ball
is going to hit the sides, how fast it’s going
and where it’s going to end up. Now, if you scale these snooker balls
up to the size of the solar system, Einstein can still help you. Sure, the physics changes, but if you wanted to know about
the path of the Earth around the Sun, Einstein could write you an equation telling you where both objects are
at any point in time. Now, with a surprising
increase in difficulty, Einstein could include
the Moon in his calculations. But as you add more and more planets,
Mars and Jupiter, say, the problem gets too tough for Einstein
to solve with a pen and paper. Now, strangely, if instead of having
a handful of planets, you had millions of objects
or even billions, the problem actually becomes much simpler, and Einstein is back in the game. Let me explain what I mean by this, by scaling these objects back down
to a molecular level. If you wanted to trace the erratic path
of an individual air molecule, you’d have absolutely no hope. But when you have millions
of air molecules all together, they start to act in a way
which is quantifiable, predictable and well-behaved. And thank goodness air is well-behaved, because if it wasn’t,
planes would fall out of the sky. Now, on an even bigger scale,
across the whole of the world, the idea is exactly the same
with all of these air molecules. It’s true that you can’t take
an individual rain droplet and say where it’s come from
or where it’s going to end up. But you can say with pretty good certainty whether it will be cloudy tomorrow. So that’s it. In Einstein’s time,
this is how far science had got. We could do really small problems
with a few objects with simple interactions, or we could do huge problems
with millions of objects and simple interactions. But what about everything in the middle? Well, just seven years
before Einstein’s death, an American scientist called
Warren Weaver made exactly this point. He said that scientific methodology
has gone from one extreme to another, leaving out an untouched
great middle region. Now, this middle region
is where complexity science lies, and this is what I mean by complex. Now, unfortunately, almost
every single problem you can think of to do with human behavior lies in this middle region. Einstein’s got absolutely no idea
how to model the movement of a crowd. There are too many people
to look at them all individually and too few to treat them as a gas. Similarly, people are prone
to annoying things like decisions and not wanting to walk into each other, which makes the problem
all the more complicated. Einstein also couldn’t tell you when the next stock market crash
is going to be. Einstein couldn’t tell you
how to improve unemployment. Einstein can’t even tell you whether the next iPhone
is going to be a hit or a flop. So to conclude part one:
we’re completely screwed. We’ve got no tools to deal with this,
and life is way too complex. But maybe there’s hope, because in the last few years, we’ve begun to see the beginnings
of a new area of science using mathematics
to model our social systems. And I’m not just talking here
about statistics and computer simulations. I’m talking about writing down
equations about our society that will help us understand
what’s going on in the same way as with the snooker balls
or the weather prediction. And this has come about
because people have begun to realize that we can use and exploit analogies between our human systems
and those of the physical world around us. Now, to give you an example: the incredibly complex problem
of migration across Europe. Actually, as it turns out, when you view
all of the people together, collectively, they behave as though
they’re following the laws of gravity. But instead of planets
being attracted to one another, it’s people who are attracted
to areas with better job opportunities, higher pay, better quality of life
and lower unemployment. And in the same way as people
are more likely to go for opportunities close to where they live already —
London to Kent, for example, as opposed to London to Melbourne — the gravitational effect of planets
far away is felt much less. So, to give you another example: in 2008, a group in UCLA
were looking into the patterns of burglary hot spots in the city. Now, one thing about burglaries
is this idea of repeat victimization. So if you have a group of burglars
who manage to successfully rob an area, they’ll tend to return to that area
and carry on burgling it. So they learn the layout of the houses, the escape routes and the local security measures
that are in place. And this will continue to happen until local residents and police
ramp up the security, at which point, the burglars
will move off elsewhere. And it’s that balance
between burglars and security which creates these dynamic
hot spots of the city. As it turns out,
this is exactly the same process as how a leopard gets its spots, except in the leopard example,
it’s not burglars and security, it’s the chemical process
that creates these patterns and something called “morphogenesis.” We actually know an awful lot
about the morphogenesis of leopard spots. Maybe we can use this to try and spot
some of the warning signs with burglaries and perhaps, also to create
better crime strategies to prevent crime. There’s a group here at UCL who are working with
the West Midlands police right now on this very question. I could give you
plenty of examples like this, but I wanted to leave you
with one from my own research on the London riots. Now, you probably
don’t need me to tell you about the events of last summer, where London and the UK saw
the worst sustained period of violent looting and arson for over twenty years. It’s understandable that, as a society,
we want to try and understand exactly what caused these riots, but also, perhaps, to equip our police
with better strategies to lead to a swifter
resolution in the future. Now, I don’t want to upset
the sociologists here, so I absolutely cannot talk about
the individual motivations for a rioter, but when you look at
the rioters all together, mathematically, you can separate it
into a three-stage process and draw analogies accordingly. So, step one: let’s say
you’ve got a group of friends. None of them are involved in the riots, but one of them walks past
a Foot Locker which is being raided, and goes in and bags himself
a new pair of trainers. He texts one of his friends and says,
“Come on down to the riots.” So his friend joins him, and then the two of them text
more of their friends, who join them, and text more of their friends and more and more, and so it continues. This process is identical to the way
that a virus spreads through a population. If you think about the bird flu epidemic
of a couple of years ago, the more people that were infected,
the more people that got infected, and the faster the virus spread before the authorities managed
to get a handle on events. And it’s exactly the same process here. So let’s say you’ve got a rioter,
he’s decided he’s going to riot. The next thing he has to do
is pick a riot site. Now, what you should know
about rioters is that, um … Oops, clicker’s gone. There we go. What you should know about rioters is,
they’re not prepared to travel that far from where they live, unless it’s a really juicy riot site. (Laughter) So you can see that here from this graph, with an awful lot of rioters
having traveled less than a kilometer to the site that they went to. Now, this pattern is seen
in consumer models of retail spending, i.e., where we choose to go shopping. So, of course, people like
to go to local shops, but you’d be prepared
to go a little bit further if it was a really good retail site. And this analogy, actually, was already
picked up by some of the papers, with some tabloid press calling the events
“Shopping with violence,” which probably sums it up
in terms of our research. Oh! — we’re going backwards. OK, step three. Finally, the rioter is at his site, and he wants to avoid
getting caught by the police. The rioters will avoid
the police at all times, but there is some safety in numbers. And on the flip side, the police,
with their limited resources, are trying to protect
as much of the city as possible, arrest rioters wherever possible and to create a deterrent effect. And actually, as it turns out, this mechanism between the two species,
so to speak, of rioters and police, is identical to predators
and prey in the wild. So if you can imagine rabbits and foxes, rabbits are trying to avoid
foxes at all costs, while foxes are patrolling the space,
trying to look for rabbits. We actually know an awful lot
about the dynamics of predators and prey. We also know a lot about
consumer spending flows. And we know a lot about
how viruses spread through a population. So if you take these three analogies
together and exploit them, you can come up with a mathematical
model of what actually happened, that’s capable of replicating
the general patterns of the riots themselves. Now, once we’ve got this,
we can almost use this as a petri dish and start having conversations about which areas of the city
were more susceptible than others and what police tactics could be used if this were ever to happen
again in the future. Even twenty years ago, modeling
of this sort was completely unheard of. But I think that these analogies
are an incredibly important tool in tackling problems with our society, and perhaps, ultimately improving
our society overall. So, to conclude: life is complex, but perhaps understanding it need not
necessarily be that complicated. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Is life really that complex? | Hannah Fry | TEDxUCL”

  1. She seems to say that her mathematical techniques would've predicted much of the unfolding of the London riots. So why didn't she give a concrete example of such a success. There's a lot of talk here, but little results.

  2. Sorry but riots are not problem of our society. Society is the problem for our riots.

  3. Just discovered her through the Infinite Money Cage podcast. I could tell she was completely gorgeous just by the way she sounded. Not that her hots are all that matters, but, erm, yeh… (I'm part of the problem)

  4. I know her from some other youtubevideos… I cant really remember the channelname though. Probably from the Royal Institution videos? Can anybody help me out?

  5. A lot of Ted and Tedx talks are 'self help' bullshit. Some, however, are very good. This one is really interesting. I'm in the UK, and got a good insight into the London riots, and crime in general. Great stuff.

  6. This is so dishonest. Just look at the complex workings of a human cell. Molecular machines. And these are real not just mathematical theories.

  7. another clever fellow who doesn't know the meaning of methodology. But it makes him sound so educated! (method: how to do something. methodology: the study of methods, so as to determine which is the best for the task at hand. )

  8. What if reality is a multiverse that follows the rules of Pascal's triangle, which is both random (in a pure mathematical sense) AND deterministic?

  9. As a female scientist myself it saddens me how many of the comments are about her looks and how few are about the topic. Even those that mention her intelligence – that''s not the reason she was on that stage. And if it was me, I know I would learn to hate compliments on my looks when they are taking away from what I'm talking about.

    And yes, I do realize the irony that this is now one of those comments about her looks.

  10. This is what I want to make my area of expertise of. Because everything that is happening can be found happening somewhere else, which coincides with my theory of everything and feeds into my nihilism. I always did like redheads, but in the end, what choice do i have.

  11. there are logics (or semiotics if you will) setting the rules for how any living system will interact with externality at every location where such interaction occurs. we lack a theoretical framework, let alone anything that can be applied for most of them with obvious incomplete exceptions including genetics and linguistics

  12. A generalized understanding of complexity would be so profound in its effect upon humanity that I don't believe we can even begin to guess at it. It would be like asking someone a few decades before the birth of Euler what they thought the impact of widespread availability of computers would be. Things which we would think are impossible or would assume must be magical would become commonplace.

  13. I find it scary that she doesn't allocate 30 secs of the video to comment on how these tactics could be misused by malevolent governments

  14. This was way to short. She is so good and interesting it seems she barely got started and she was done. I hope she does more Teds on the subject, but I think any she would wow on what ever idea she spoke of.

  15. What the heck was that? Being pretty and sounding nice does not equal an "Idea worth sharing"! Equating crime hotspots with Cheeta spots is idiotic, and any 3 year old could see that! How can anyone take her seriously after that?

  16. I think the police have the understanding of the pattern of rioters as against what you said that they didn't have these pattern understanding.the only difference according to me is that you presented it in very fancy animated way and the police do it (mapping the patterns) in an informal way. Its like let's use technology to do a work because we are not primitive.

  17. Can people hire scientists to help them being safe from tyrants or scientists only serve authorities?

  18. I don't think you should just bring up the relationship between burglaries and leopard spots without talking about what the relationship is and then just drop it and move on.

  19. Again, the tendency of mathematics to oversimplify something very complex is prevalent. If my friend texts me to come join a riot … my proclivity to actually join such a social activity will be predicated by the degree to which I agree or disagree with the reasons for which they are protesting and / or rioting. For instance, if they were to say … “Hey! We are going to tar and feather Lloyd Blankfein and Jared Dimon,” over the mortgage backed security scandal and the tax funded bailouts … I am very highly likely to enjoy seeing both of them ridden out of town on a rail. But, if it were over the large number of Latin Americans who have migrated to the USA and they wish to demonize or harm those people in some way I would be loathe to join them and promptly report them to the authorities to quell such an injustice. Mathematics / statistical modeling methods may be useful to reveal a broad pattern. But, those patterns can only inform the investigation into such questions with complex systems.

  20. what next creepy Einstein created math ,, with his wonderful equation "Fm=a" Einstein groupies pleas get real if you have studied it and still regurgitate that rubbish your holding humanity contemptuously

  21. Hannah Fry's passion for math is contagious, and she really has a gift for explaining complex concepts with clarity.

  22. Hannah has grown so much in her talks. She seems nervous in this one, but if you watch her other talks, you see how confident and calm she is. It’s wonderful.

  23. The virus is not the rioters, it's the poverty and inequality, you are helping to punish the victims not helping the route cause,what a shame

  24. I love Hannah Fry and how she can distill complicated topics and present them in an accessible and interesting way to pretty much any audience. She is a truly remarkable woman.

  25. Nicely presented in a crisp manner….i have always felt nature has answers hidden in plain sight in simple things even for the most complex of problems..it seems to me that its in the 'design' of evolution where certain patterns develop & get reused or built upon much like software..maths is one sense to perceive this..but there are others..

  26. This comment section upsets me soooo much 🙁 All men, all talking about the facts shes a woman, red head, pretty, whatever. This woman is presenting HER WORK. Think about that for a second.

  27. Social instability (Riots) corelate with wealth inequality.
    Have as many cops as you like anywhere you like and you wont permanently solve it.
    Inequality also a factor in Brexit vote.
    London refuses to face this issue and it won't go away, it will simply evolve, if Inequality increases sufficiently there will be a revolution, read Russian and French history.
    Also the narrator is so attractive that its darned difficult to concentrate on what she says, never had that issue before

  28. Firstly, Einstein was wrong. A bit of research into Nikola Tesla will easily show that.

    Simple ans is No.

    Life is simply why and then how? Or put another way, philosophy and then strategy.

    Everything we do is to avoid pain and to gain pleasure.

    The universe is a hologram based on fractal geometry and hence the structure of God if you will.

    Life and the universe is so simple to me these days…….and fell in love with it once i got to understand it better

  29. Sounds like she’s clueless on how to even define life, or at least doesn’t even try. Everything she says rests on assumptions about life which she does not explain. More scientists should study Richard Feynman. He never really locked himself within the dogma of his profession. Too many followers in science nowadays.

  30. Interestingly this is similar to the idea behind psychohistory in the foundation series…. the total behavior and path of humanity can be modeled at a large scale, but the actions of individuals cannot be predicted.

  31. soooo, i heard nothing of the complexity of life but a lot of examples of things we can model… yeah, i'm gonna have to go with life is complex and needs to be sparked into consciousness, hence too complex for chance, requires God jmho

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