Time in complex systems operates concurrently at different scales, runs at multiple rates, and integrates the function of numerous connected systems. This is “complex time” as opposed to the simple, regular clock time of physical phenomena. In complex time, aging includes explicitly the coupling between information gain and information loss.

In our lived experience, time always moves in one direction: forward. Stars, organisms, companies and technologies all come into existence, grow old, and then die. Hot things, when left alone, get cooler, and fragile items break when dropped. While quantum mechanics suggests that time may not always move in the way we experience it, there are no physical phenomena that we know of that do not, in some fundamental way, experience the forward-moving arrow of time.

The Santa Fe Institute will be pursuing questions about general, universal principles of complex time with support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF) through a five year, $2.5 million grant.

The new grant, titled “Adaptation, Aging and the Arrow of Time,” will investigate “how fundamental complexity insights and tools developed by SFI bearing on the ‘arrow of time’ could transform our understanding and treatment of natural biological and disease phenomena, social systems and technology.”

These phenomena are incredibly diverse in range and scale, but still have common mechanisms and processes. This new program will take an innovative approach to studying aging and adaptation in complex systems by considering both the gain and loss of order, and by looking at systems of many scales, simultaneously. By bringing together experts from many different communities to share data and insights across fields, the program aims to conceive of bold, new experiments that will lead to a deeper, shared understanding of the mechanisms of aging.

“This is a very exciting collaboration between the JSMF and SFI. There are few experiences more fundamental than time, and yet when it comes to time’s role in complex systems we have barely scratched the surface,” says SFI President David Krakauer. “And the implications of a deeper understanding of the relationship between adaptation and aging could change the way we think about disease, cognitive decline, the life and death of companies, and even the future of civilizations. This is a really bold project that will draw on a large network of SFI scientists and new domain experts not yet exposed to the power of complexity science.”

This grant builds on the spirit of the JSMF-SFI Founding Program on Robustness and Social Processes, which since 2001 has launched a new field of research and generated numerous books, publications, and ongoing research.

JSMF seeks out scholarly fields that hold promise and potential for future generations, and provides funding for fields such as human cognition and complex systems.