Electron clouds, cornfields, and societies all have one thing in common: the whole isn’t just the sum of its parts. How that whole emerges from its parts – and whether there are common, fundamental principles guiding emergence across the sciences – has been a driving question for SFI scientists since the Institute’s beginning.

As the Institute approaches its 30th year, a group of distinguished scientists recently took time to revisit and build on questions of emergence.

Gateways to Emergent Behavior in Science and Society, a three-day workshop at SFI September 23-26, 2013 sought to develop an “informal network focused on the origins of emergent behavior,” says SFI cofounder and Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter (ICAM) Founding Director Emeritus David Pines, who organized the meeting with fellow SFI Science Board members John Holland, Simon Levin, and Donald Saari.

A diverse cast of participants ranging from SFI postdocs to members of the National Academy of Sciences and MacArthur Fellows focused on identifying what Pines calls “gateways” – concrete scientific principles that explain how a particular system’s behavior emerges from its constituent parts – and whether those gateways might have relevance across traditional scientific boundaries.

Pines says the workshop’s goals required both young and established scientists from many fields that included biology, physics, mathematics, and ecology. “We all know that almost all of the exciting problems in emergent behavior we work on require input from a number of disciplines,” he says. “You begin breaking barriers down by exposing people to a wide variety of exciting perspectives from different disciplines.”

In addition to expanding SFI’s and ICAM’s network of researchers interested in gateways, another outcome will be to engender a Gateways Registry: a Wiki-based repository where members of the scientific community can describe approaches to emergence that have proved successful in their own research.

The workshop also addressed ways to use the gateways concept in science education and public engagement. ICAM has developed a website aimed at younger adults, Pines says, and a number of workshop participants agreed that emergence would be a good way to introduce middle schoolers to science.