BQ4: How does organized behavior arise in complex systems?

The vast majority of natural phenomena encountered in everyday life can be described in terms of nonlinear equations, which are often a consequence of a complex set of interactions among microscopic elements. Even when the nature of those interactions is well understood, the collective, macroscopic effects can be surprising. The surprises may come in the form of intricate patterns and dynamical heterogeneity (such as turbulence) arising from simple underlying structure; or as a robust, coherent behavior arising from heterogeneous underlying elements (e.g. in granular materials or biological systems). Studies of these phenomena, which often involve a combination of deterministic and statistical analysis, are pushing the boundaries of physics and revealing unexpected connections between seemingly disparate fields.

Duke physicists are exploring the behavior of complex systems both theoretically and experimentally in a variety of contexts. New phenomena are being discovered in systems such as fluid flows, nonlinear optical and electronic systems, or accelerator beams, where well-understood equations of motion can provide theoretical insights. In other cases, such as turbulent quark-gluon plasmas, semiconductors, or granular materials, the macroscopic equations themselves are the topics of research. Finally, research into the functioning of biological systems such as gene regulatory networks, neural networks, or elastic tissues is leading to new modeling methods as well as insights into the engineering strategies discovered by the process of natural selection.

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