PerspectiveChemistry

Emergent or Just Complex?

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Science  25 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5948, pp. 1632-1634
DOI: 10.1126/science.1178323

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Summary

The concept of emergence in the physical and biological sciences is an elusive one. The term refers to phenomena in which the complexity of structures or behaviors in systems with many interacting components exceeds that predicted from knowledge of the individual components and the forces between them. A recent conference (1) provided an opportunity to probe the notion of emergence from a wide range of viewpoints, loosely linked by the themes of increasing complexity and molecular organization. The scope of the conference is exemplified by S. Rasmussen's characterization of hydrogen as “a colorless, odorless gas, which, given enough time, turns into people.” Perhaps the prototypical emergent phenomenon is the origin of entities that can plausibly be called alive (2). How does one get from atoms to simple molecules to systems that can grow, reproduce, metabolize, move, and adapt?

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