Astronomy 321
Science, Models, and Complex Systems

This course contains a substantial writing component and fulfills part of the basic education requirement in writing. Performance will be evaluated partly on the basis of quality of writing.

CLASSROOM AND TIME: R.L. Moore Hall 15.216B, MW 4:00-5:15


OFFICE: R.L. Moore 17.220

PHONE: 471-6446 (office); 478-2748 (home)

OFFICE HOURS: MW1-3. Meetings at other times can also be arranged by appointment. However, I urge you to feel free to call me at home any time between 9:00 a.m. and midnight (I do much of my work there, and it's really no intrusion) or at my office, or to talk to me after class. For short questions there is usually no need for you to walk all the way to my office or to break up your day just because you can only talk to me at some appointed times.


Required texts:
1. Briggs, J. and Peat, F.D., Turbulent Mirror
2. Levy, Steven, Artificial Life
3. Churchland, Paul, The Engine of Reason
Course packet: Contains a large number of short articles. Available (probably during the second week of class) at IT Copy (M.L. King and Lavaca)

You are urged to take notes on the readings, partly because you will be tested on them (see below). The types of questions you should consider in your notes will be discussed in class.

Some math will be used in the presentations and some of the readings, but it will be extremely simple, and you will not need to reproduce any of it for the exam or for papers.

Approximate breakdown of grading

One exam: 30%. The exam will be essay-type, taken in class, with "open notes." The exam is partly designed to test the student's understanding and integration of the class discussions and various readings. Writing mechanics will not play a role in the grading of the exam.

Major paper (1): 30%. A research paper, about 10-15 pages long, will be due near the end of the semester. Two broad choices for this paper are: 1. An investigation of the ways in which a particular field of study (e.g. sociology, medicine, marketing, communications, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, . . .) has attempted to conform to the image of a "natural science" and/or has aligned itself with the language and models of complex systems research. 2. An in-depth look at the ways in which complex systems models have become used as tools in a specific field, like the use of neural networks in astronomy or financial prediction or medical diagnosis. (The paper topics will be made clearer in a detailed assignment sheet.) The subject is to be chosen by the student, possibly related to your major, or some subject in which you have had a couple of classes, or just some area you've read about that interests you. Other possible topics may be suggested by the student, and will be mentioned as the class progresses. Much of the research will be carried out using various periodicals databases available at UT, at least to begin. I will also provide a list of starting references, world wide web sites, etc., for many areas. I expect this paper to reflect at least half a semester's worth of consistent work; please don't plan on waiting until the end of the semester.

Short papers (2-3): 30%. These are mostly aimed at demonstrating the ability of the students to view the readings from several perspectives, and to explain the broader implications in a clear way. Criteria for my grading of papers will be handed out separately and discussed in class.

Participation: 10%. Includes attendance, contributions to class discussions, and an alternate "contributions from the literature" which will be explained in class. I am hoping for interesting and lively discussion, so be sure to have read the assignments before class.

Note: Since this class only meets twice per week, and because these class meetings will review the readings, discuss assignments, etc., attendance may play an important role in your final grade, beyond the "participation" component.


This course is a critical examination of the ability of science and related formal systems of representation to model and provide "explanations" for and "understanding" of the complex phenomena that seem to comprise most of our experience of the world.

On one level, you will read and learn about the basic ideas in the area of research called "complex systems": chaos, self-organization, fractals, cellular automata, artificial life, neural networks, and other types of models. Some of the applications include collective patterns in diverse phenomena like Jupiter's Red Spot, ant colonies, automobile traffic; the dynamics of galaxy evolution, brain activity, legal systems, urban development, and human organizations; and predictability in the weather, in the solar system, in economic forecasts, and in general. These general topics are of interest in their own right, and as examples of the types of interdisciplinary research to which science may be opening, for better or worse.

A second level of the course, pursued at the same time, involves a critical examination of the nature of science and model-making in general (even in everyday life), using these complex systems models as an example.

Topics that will be emphasized are:

  1. The status of science and "scientific knowledge"; realism, objectivism, universalism, reductionism, rationality, . . . .
  2. The ways in which fields of research called "complex systems" (including chaos theory, cellular automata, artificial life, neural networks) fit into this picture, or represent a departure from it.
  3. The question of whether science is really capable of revealing anything useful or explanatory about "complex systems" (e.g. an ecosystem, an economy, a brain, the weather, your body, . . .) which comprise most of our world; and if not, how do we get the impression that it is?
  4. The manner in which "simulation" is coming to dominate many fields, such as artificial intelligence, biology, astrophysics, and even fields like organization studies and management.
  5. The way in which the language, methods, and theories of science (particularly the field of "complex systems" research) have pervaded our personal and collective ways of thinking, are being used to give legitimacy and credibility to current social/cultural trends; i.e. the "scientification" of disciplines, beliefs, and practices outside of the "physical sciences."
The assigned papers and the exam in the course will be aimed at seeing how well you can integrate these two levels of thinking about the course material.