Exploring Complexity in Science and Technology

CS 346U:
Computer Science and University Studies Departments
Fall Quarter 2009

Time : Mondays and Wednesdays, 2:00-3:50pm

Location: Sixth Avenue Building (SH), Room 209.

Instructor: Melanie Mitchell, FAB 120-24, (503) 725-2412, e-mail

Office hours: Mondays and Wednesdays, 4:00-5:00pm, or by appointment.

Course Website: :

Course description: This course introduces the main ideas in Complex Systems, an interdisciplinary field of research that seeks to explain how large numbers of relatively simple entities organize themselves, without the benefit of any central controller, acting collectively to create patterns, use information, and adapt and learn. The course will introduce undergraduates, in a largely non-mathematical way, to the the methods and tools of computer-based modeling, and to front-line research on complexity in several different areas of science, including physics, biology, the social sciences, and computer science. Topics will include areas of current research in complex systems science, including dynamics and chaos, information and computation, life and evolution in nature and in machines, the science of networks, and network structure and information processing in living systems. The focus will be on common principles underlying complexity in natural and technological systems.

Note: This class cannot be used to fulfill the upper division CS electives requirement for CS majors.

Prerequisites: None

Textbook: M. Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour

Homework: Weekly reading assignments; reading questions; lab assignments; final paper (5 pages).

For the final paper, students will find, read, and summarize three published articles on a particular topic in complex systems science.

Exams: No exams.

Grading: Reading questions and in-class discussion: 30%. Lab assignments: 50%. Final paper: 20%.

Syllabus (subject to change):


Class Topic(s)

Homework and Reading

Mon. Sept. 28

Class introduction

What is Complexity?

Dynamics, Chaos, and Prediction

Introduction to NetLogo

Here are the slides.

Here are the links to the videos:
Ants video
Brain video
Immune system video

Week 1 reading: Textbook, Chapters 1-2

Week 1 homework, due Mon. Oct. 5:
Reading questions

Download Netlogo:

Wed. Sept. 30

Dynamics, Chaos, and Prediction, continued

Introduction to NetLogo, continued


Mon. Oct. 5


Here are the slides.

Here is a writeup on logarithms and Shannon information.

Week 2 reading: Textbook, Chapters 3-4

Week 2 homework, due Mon. Oct. 12:
Reading questions

Chaos and dynamics lab:

Wed. Oct. 7


Here are the slides.


Mon. Oct. 12


Week 3 reading: Textbook Chapters 5-6

Week 3 homework, due Mon. Oct. 19:
Reading questions

Information lab:

Wed. Oct. 14

Evolution, continued
Genetics made simple


Mon. Oct. 19

Class cancelled


Wed. Oct. 21

Defining and measuring complexity

Here are the slides.

Week 4 reading:
Textbook Chapter 7
S. Lloyd, The Calculus of Intricacy (password protected)

Week 4 homework, due Wednesday Oct. 28:
Reading questions

Fractals lab:

Mon. October 26

Defining and measuring complexity, continued.

Self-reproducing computer programs

Week 5 reading: Textbook Chapters 8-9

Wed. Oct. 28

Genetic algorithms

Here are the slides.


Mon. Nov. 2

Genetic algorithms, cellular automata

Discussion of final paper topics

Here are the slides.

Week 6 reading: Textbook Chapter 10

Week 6 homework, due Monday Nov. 9:

Reading questions

Genetic algorithms lab:

Wed. Nov. 4

Cellular automata and coevolution

Here are the slides.


Mon. Nov. 9

Information processing in living systems

Week 7 reading: Textbook Chapters 11-12

Week 7 homework, due Monday Nov. 16:
Reading questions
Cellular automata lab

Wed. Nov. 11

Veterans Day: No class


Mon. Nov. 16

Analogy-making as a complex system

Week 8 reading: Textbook Chapters 13-14

Wed. Nov. 18

Prospects of computer modeling

Week 8 homework, due Wed. Nov. 25:
Reading questions
Prisoner's dilemma lab

Mon. Nov. 23

Networks 1

Here are the slides.

Week 9 reading: Textbook Chapters 15-16

Wed. Nov. 25

Networks 2

Week 9 homework, due Wed. Dec. 2:
Reading questions

Here are the links to the two articles for the reading questions:

Baby names a game of chance
The power of power laws

Mon. Nov. 30

Biological scaling

Here are the slides.

Week 10 reading: Textbook, Chapter 17-19

Wed. Dec. 2

Evolution complexified

Here are the slides.

Week 10 homework, due Wed. Dec. 9:
Reading questions
Networks and Scaling lab

Mon. Dec. 7

No class (finals week).


Wed. Dec. 9

Special make-up class: 12:30-2:20pm.

Evolution complexified
Future of complex systems science

Week 10 homework and final paper due