Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Updates on Swine Flu Projections

Since my previous post about work being done at Indiana University by Alex Vespignani and co-workers I have received a communication from Bruno Goncalves, a member of Vespignani's research team. Bruno told me that the team is currently using their models to make short-term predictions of the Mexican swine flu epidemic.

The team's modeling system, known as GLEaM, which stands for "Global Epidemic and Mobility modeler" is described on their webpage in the following way:

"GLEaM considers a population of 6 billion individuals mapped on census cells of 15 × 15 minutes covering the entire Earth surface. It combines this detailed census data with long-range transportation by air and short-range mobility patterns (check the GLEaM in detail webpage for additional details). The GLEaM simulation engine can simulate the stochastic infection dynamics occurring in the population in a given place of the world and model its propagation at the worldwide scale, taking into account the mobility of infectious individuals."

Very current projections are now being made by the team for the spread of the Mexican swine flu into the United States. The team is only making projections for three weeks into the future, but is updating their website on a near-daily basis. Current projections are for 100-300 cases in each of several major metropolitan areas in the US. Please keep checking the GLEaM website for up-to-date projections as the situation is changing very rapidly.

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Azalea Season

Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu and Other Epidemics

I'm writing this on Saturday for posting on Monday and wondering what the news about the swine flu outbreak will be two days from now. Will it still be "just" an outbreak on Monday, or will the names "epidemic" or "pandemic" be in use by then? A very informative, helpful article about this issue was published by New Scientist this past weekend.

Complexity science is one area of study that seems to have a lot to contribute to the understanding and, perhaps, management of epidemics and pandemics. It has been known for a very long time that viral epidemics such as measles occur in ways that can be described by nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. Some older papers on this subject can be found here and here and here.

A friend of mine, Alessandro Vespignani of Indiana University, has done a lot of research on mathematical modeling of epidemics and is a proponent of the power of complex systems modeling for understanding and even controlling pandemics.

In 2007 Alex and his colleagues took a look at historical records for the SARS outbreak and were able to show that the spread of this disease could be traced to air travel patterns. Their work, which used network theory, one of the newest tools in the complexity science toolbox, is an example of an approach that could be used by public health professionals as they work to predict and manage new disease outbreaks.

Public health professionals would be wise to take a look at the predictive capabilities of complex systems modeling. As Neal Pearce and Franco Merletti argue in an editorial in the International Journal of Epidemiology,

"...the health of a population can be viewed as a complex adaptive system. A population is not just a collection of individuals; rather, each population has its own history, culture, and socioeconomic structures, which survive despite massive global economic change while at the same time being affected and shaped by such change. The health of a population is shaped by, and shapes, the sociocultural context in which the population lives. Thus, although the occurrence of disease can be studied at many different levels, including ecosystems, populations, individuals, and molecules, it has been argued that the population level is fundamental for epidemiology."

Whether the swine flu outbreak turns into a serious epidemic or even pandemic like SARS remains to be seen. However, it seems clear to me that the science of complex systems is eminently applicable to this topic and urgently needed by public health professionals.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Social Lives of Bacteria

This video of Bonnie Bassler describing the social lives of bacteria provides a fantastic demonstration of the emergence phenomenon. Watch it! Thanks to my friend Pam Munsell for pointing me to this great TED presentation.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Emergent System

The concept of emergence seems to be cropping up everywhere one turns these days. The term is used to describe not only new events in organized religion, as described in the book I reviewed last week, but many other examples of otherwise unexplained behavior in the social sciences, such as dynamics in financial markets.

Emergent properties are collective properties, which means they are properties of collections, not properties of individual parts. The cause can often be traced back to the
interactions between the parts of which a system is made.

Often the nature of those interactions is more important than the identity of the parts. Thus, flocking behaviors are observed in systems composed of insects, birds or even people, as seen in the accompanying
photo. This concept has found a use in the computer science world where swarm intelligence, a type of artificial intelligence, is used to control flocks, or swarms, of robots.

The term "emergence" has been around for awhile and can be traced back to systems theory. Systems theory has also been around for awhile, going back to the 1950s, but it was not until 1972 when Philip Anderson wrote an article in Science entitled "More is Different," that scientists really began to grapple with the fact that systems are different than the isolated parts which collectively make up the system.

In this seminal article, Anderson wrote:

"The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe...At each level of complexity entirely new properties appear. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. We can now see that the whole becomes not merely more, but very different from the sum of its parts."

This idea that the whole is more from the sum of its parts is one of the main reasons that the emergence concept has been so compelling. When a new quality, or new behaviors, emerge from a simpler system we scientists long for a theory or explanation.

So far, our understanding of emergent behavior is only partial. We understand that the interactions between the parts of the system is a key feature of the mechanism that leads to emergence. We also understand that the behavior of the system as a whole can
feed back on the parts which make it up, changing the behaviors of those parts.

It is this last aspect of emergence that makes it seem more than a little scary to those who first hear about it. If we are the parts and the system is society, the idea of the "system" imposing its will on us can be quite frightening.
Just what is this "system" that is imposing its behavior on us? And is it something that I, as an individual, have any choice about?

This topic is a deep and intricate one and I will have much more to say about the science of emergence in future posts - stay tuned!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: The Great Emergence

Although the subtitle of this latest book by Phyllis Tickle is "How Christianity is Changing and Why," the book is about so much more. The book's thesis is that the western Church is going through an upheaval and rearrangement, the likes of which have not been seen for 500 years.

Even more surprising, Tickle argues persuasively that similar transformations have occurred every 500 years, each one leading to huge and fundamental changes in religion, but also in society, culture and the individual person's life.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed his treatises to a church door and initiated the Great Reformation. 500 years before that the church split into the east and the west: Eastern and Greek Orthodox on the one hand, Roman Catholicism on the other. Going back 500 more years we arrive at the fall of the Roman Empire and the ushering in of the dark ages.

And 500 before that is the time of Jesus himself, a transformation so great that even the way we number our years was changed as a result. If we consider the whole Judeo-Christian world, the pattern extends even further: 500 years before Christ was the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, and 500 years before that we have the reign of King David.

Tickle takes us through a broad and far-reaching review of history, laying out the case that we are now in a time she calls The Great Emergence, and have been for several decades now. Just as Martin Luther's ideas would not have spread without Gutenberg's printing press, the ideas arising at this current time would not be spreading without the web.

And just as Luther's ideas rejected the existing authority structures in the church at the time, so to now do the activities of those involved in The Great Emergence reject the authority structures of our time. The Internet and Web 2.0 technologies are making this rejection which started in the 1960s even more pervasive.

As we all know, the Reformation also ushered in an age in which Science became the dominant force in our culture. The names that come to mind are known to all students: Newton, Copernicus, Galileo. Tickle discusses several key events in Science in the last hundred years that have ushered in the next great age of transformation. Most of us would also have no trouble naming the scientists responsible for this latest turn of events: Darwin, Freud, Einstein.

This is a short book, less than 170 6"x9" pages, but packed with many thought-provoking ideas. Toward the end of the book, on p. 152, Tickle touches on the possibility that what is happening to the church is a natural event:

" this case, the Church, capital C, is not really a 'thing' or entity so much as it is a network in exactly the same way that the Internet or the World Wide Web or, for that matter, gene regulatory and metabolic networks are not 'things' or entities. Like them and from the point of view of an emergent, the Church is a self-organizing system of relations, symmetrical or otherwise, between innumerable member-parts that themselves form subsets of relations within their smaller networks, etc. etc. in interlacing levels of complexity."

She goes on to draw the clear conclusion: what this means is that no one individual or hierarchical structure is in charge:

"No one of the member parts or connecting networks has the whole or entire truth of anything...each is only a single working piece of what is evolving and is sustainable so long as the interconnectivity of the whole remains intact."

This is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in history, the intersection of religion and science, the current state of Christianity, or any number of other topics. I predict people will be talking about this book for years and you just might want to be among those who read it first.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Wonder and the Terror of Self-Organization

Self-organization can be wonderful and terrible, all at the same time.

Last week, I wrote about the self-organizing slime mold, Dictyostelium discoideum, a life form that starts off its life cycle as a single-celled amoeba, but ends it as a multicellular organism containing many of those individual amoebae, now converted from independent individuals to mere body parts.

Self-organization happens to us as well -- to our families and businesses -- perhaps to our entire world. A unit (or individual) that is part of a self-organizing system might feel their identity slipping away as self-organization happens, just like those single-celled amoebae feel their identity disappearing as they became body parts in the larger multi-celled organism that is coming into existence.

For members of a group or organization that may be undergoing self-organization to a more complex state, other changes will occur. Relationships will change, chains of command may break or re-form in different ways. There is no obvious assurance at such a time that the end result will be better than what has existed before – but there is also no reason to believe that we, as individuals, have any power to stop the force which is moving the system forward toward a new self-organized state.

What are we to do in such a situation, when our family or business – or nation – seems caught up in a self-organization event? And how do we recognize when change is actually self-organization and not something else?

First, self-organization is never top-down. Self-organization is the very essence of grass-roots-directed change. Self-organization happens when the parts of a system begin interacting in different ways, not because somebody tells them to, but because they want to.

The whole system is involved and it is impossible to tell who is in charge during self-organization, because nobody is. In a family or organization or nation, then, one can be assured that it is not self-organization if change starts at the top or is being controlled by a small group.

The best way to weather the storm of self-organization is to trust. We must believe that a better life or existence is taking shape and that it is a benevolent force that is behind it all or we will fight the change at every turn.

This can be difficult enough when the self-organizing system we are caught up in is a family or a church, but what if it seems to be our nation – or the whole world – that is undergoing a possible self-organization? How do we even know that it is self-organization that is occurring and not some apocalyptic event?

When cataclysmic change is occurring all around us, when mighty skyscrapers crash to the ground and terrorists send deadly disease spores through the mail, is our world self-organizing? Or is our world coming to an end? Or is this just two different ways to say the same thing?

Just as those early single-celled individuals would have told us there is no way for us, as individuals, to tell the difference between the end of a familiar way of life and the beginning of a whole new, wonderful world. All we can do is trust.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Call to Self-Organization

In an earlier post, I wrote about self-organization, an amazing phenomenon in which order arises spontaneously in a complex system.

An example occurs in an organism known as Dictyostelium discoideum, or slime mold, that starts off life as single-celled amoeba. When food and water become scarce, the amoebae aggregate through the fantastic spiral patterns shown here, bringing the members of the colony together.

The result is remarkable: the amoebae begin to differentiate, form different cell types, and come together into a full-fledged multi-cellular organism: a slug. This slug can travel in search of food, but if it doesn't find any, it will send down a root and cement itself to a flat surface, then send up a stalk which forms a fruiting body and, eventually, produces spores -- in a last-ditch effort for at least some of the cells to travel far and wide in search of food and water.

As I explained in my earlier post, the slime mold self-organizes through the same type of spiral patterns observed in self-organizing chemical reactions that are not alive. The similarity in self-organization pattern between these two systems -- one not alive, the other very much alive -- has been the basis for many thousands of scientific experiments aimed at determining the general features of this intriguing phenomenon.

You might ask: Does self-organization just occur automatically or is their some role for choice or free will? Maybe self-organizing molecules have no free will, but what about more complex systems – like families, business or nations? What about individuals? At what level of organization does free will in a self-organized system play a role?

Perhaps, many millions of years ago, some little single-celled organisms came together just like the slime mold amoebae, forming colonies that gradually, over many more millions of years, became multicellular organisms like fish. What role is played by the individual cells that, at the end of this process, become just cells in a body? If those little cells had any idea what was going to happen to them when they first aggregated into colonies, would they have done it?

The slime mold seem perfectly comfortable with going back and forth between an individual existence and one as a member of a greater whole. Would we be so calm if self-organization were happening to us?

This is an important question – because, for all we know, self-organization just might be happening to us and our world right now.

Just try to imagine the decisions we might be asked to make if we were one of those little cells on the early earth, struggling with the choice of giving up some (or maybe all) of our own individuality for the great unknown of colony membership. Accepting a role as a member of this new and improved “multicellular” form of life would be a very difficult decision to make and I wonder how many of us would go willingly?

To take such a step (if we even have a choice) requires trust in a future that does not yet exist and whose form is so dramatically different from our current reality nobody would be able to predict it.

How would we feel if some of our amoebae friends set off on a journey to the realm of multicellularity? Suppose they became first sponges, then fish and on and on, evolving further, into mammals, people, civilized human beings. Suppose, further, that some of these pioneers had occasionally returned to the amoeba world, telling of strange and wonderful new experiences awaiting on the “other side.”

“Once the call to self-organization has been answered,” they might say, “a new life is born.” I imagine that they might tell fantastic stories, of crawling up out of the water, walking upright over the land, learning to pull together materials and make tools, stories of constructing cities and airplanes and space ships.

They might even tell about the time they had flown that spaceship and walked upon the surface of the moon. If we were still content in our existence as little single-celled organisms, not much bigger than a slime mold amoeba, we wouldn't even know what the moon is! We wouldn’t have a clue what our friends were talking about and might even shrug off their fantastic stories as obvious ravings of lunatics who had somehow gone off the deep end.

Why would anyone want to self-organize if you lose not only your individuality but, apparently, your sanity as well?

More on this next week!

Monday, April 6, 2009


I have been thinking a lot about what constitutes community, and how the virtual community I now find myself spending more and more time in is as real, to me, as the community I live and work and worship in. The similarity between the two types of community -- the virtual and the real -- was brought home to me today in a way I didn't expect.

I had been all prepared to write about how I knew the virtual community was real by the way people have responded to two unexpected tragedies among our membership, when I got word that my friend Patty had died this morning. It was not unexpected, as she'd been ill for several years, and when I saw her yesterday I could tell we would be losing her soon. I just didn't expect it to be quite that soon.

But do we ever expect death to come quite that soon? I have been privileged to be present, in a virtual way, as two people I have come to know exclusively through twitter, each lost a child to sudden and unexpected death in recent weeks. I have been further privileged to witness the community responding with love and prayers and support, in precisely the same way my own community here in Arlington is responding to the loss of our dear Patty.

Sometimes, it's best to use as few words as possible, and I think this is one of those times. It is spring, bringing the promise of new life, at the same moment we are reminded that the natural course for life is for it to end, and death will come to us all eventually.

Peace be with you on this day that brings, unexpectedly, hope and love even in the face of death.