How Complexity can be Simplified from the Perspective of Science

March 25, 2015

Have you ever taken a break from the hustle and bustle and spend one minute on observing our city?

In the Common Core Course “Simplifying Complexity”, Drs. Timothy Bonebrake and Timothy Wotherspoon led a group of undergraduate students from disparate disciplines through the journey of exploring both complexity science and similar patterns found in nature and everyday life, facilitating them to see the role of science in a different perspective, particularly its intricate relationships between humanity and the global environment. Students were asked to create a photographic document of their observation and briefly explain the self-organizing characteristics and mechanisms of the phenomenon, of which outstanding student work were displayed in the Common Core Lounge on February 12, 2015.

What the Instructor Says

Dr Timothy Wotherspoon

“I was very eager for the students to do some of their own explorations about complexity in their daily lives. Students' experiences and understandings of our city and society are very diverse and often quite different than my own. This assessment not only serves to help the students achieve the learning outcomes of identifying complexity in the global society and evaluating how complexity is shaping the interaction between humanity and the global environment, but also allows them to share with me and each other some of the way in which they experience the world around them. I was really pleased by the quality and diversity of the student work and could easily have selected more for display in the lounge."

What the Students Say

Fish in Pond – Study of Self-organisation Collective Behaviour

Chien Ho Yin, Year 1 BBA (E&F) student
Tse Lap Hang, Year 3 BSc (Molecular Biology & Biotechnology) student

Tse Lap Hang and Chien Ho Yin (from the left)

“Complexity science concerns systems of numerous interacting components without central control. Self-organizing systems are great examples, in which units react to one another and external stimuli by a certain set of rule, forming sophisticated collective behaviors in macroscopic scale.

In the portfolio, the dynamics of the self-organization of fish was captured by light-tracing and analyzed. The pictures illustrate how every fish interpret motion of other members of the community and act accordingly, forming collective behaviors like depending on the information relayed in the network. The large area of food and danger detection of the network and instant signal transmission enhance competitiveness of the whole community.”

Pattern of the System:
The random movement of fish when no external stimulus was observed, where density of trails in the central region was slightly higher, demonstrating a complex network without definite pattern.

Challenge of the Project:
Chien Hoi Ying considered capturing dynamics in a fish pond the biggest challenge of illustrating a complex system. ‘In this project we made use of the live-tracing feature of the camera to demonstrate dynamics and tell how individual components of a system interact, making it more illustrative and expressive than others. We are glad that we accomplished it,’ said Chien.
Pedestrian Movement and Interaction
Tang King Ho, Year 2 BPharm student
Wang Yip Lim, Year 2 BPharm student
“Complexity science is everywhere. From the genes and cellular organizations to cities and global networks like Facebook, everyone is involved in this field. However, the concept of complexity is never stated explicitly in any contexts that we have learned before. Small components organized by simple rules to form complicated system, is the most important concept that we have learnt in this course.
After realizing this concept, we believe that any everyday observation will have some degree of self-organization. Thus, on the way back home, we took photos on the movement of pedestrians in crowded places for the portfolio. The simple rules behind the pedestrian flow fit well with the studies that we searched, and it shows that seemingly complicated problems can be understood in a simplified manner.”
Pattern of the System:
A bottleneck arc was emerged in the crowd because people tended to sidestep around each other to access the closest exit. However, this sidestepping blocked others’ movement and led to slow pedestrian flow unexpectedly.
Other Projects:
Flower Market at Prince Edward
Xu Zi Xuan Betty
“This photographic project is quite cool! Both the topic and the form are new to me.
At first, our group came up with many ideas such as the formation of body languages or the self-organization of transportation, but we finally chose Hong Kong’s urban layout as the topic.  We tried to regard the stores, shopkeepers and customers as a whole system and analyze the influence of their interactions.
To be honest, I find photographic project more challenging than essay-based or presentation-based project, as we need to clearly depict a phenomenon or a trend in merely 5 or 6 photos. It requires a deep understanding of the topic rather than merely summarize the reading materials. I feel that I do learn something about self-organization through the project.”
Self-organisation of Human Interactions during a Field Trip
Sun Yichun Sunny

“My project was about an incident I observe in my life. If it weren't because of this course, I will never put such trifle in life under the lens of science. The interesting case happened when I went on a field trip in the reading week last semester. Due to the accidental absence of the coordinating professor, we were left to arrange ourselves as a group during the flight and the transfer. A clearer self-organization appeared when we arrived at the hostel reception. Without a definite leader some of us spontaneously stood out and took charge of a certain responsibility. No one was in fact playing the role as a leader, but we made it through cooperation without instruction.”
More about the Course