New from the SFI Press: "Foundational Papers in Complexity Science." In four volumes spanning nearly 3,000 pages, "Foundational Papers" looks at the past 100 years to examine the origins and history of the field of complexity. (image: SFI Press)

When Claude Shannon wrote “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in 1948, he was known as a mathematician and an electrical engineer. From this extraordinarily influential paper — cited more than 155,000 times — he would come to be called the “father of information theory.” Today, we see in him the hallmarks of an early complexity scientist.
Shannon’s article is one of 88 groundbreaking papers republished in the latest SFI Press project, Foundational Papers in Complexity Science. These four volumes look at the past 100 years to examine the origins and history of the field. Each paper is introduced and placed in its historical context by contemporary complexity scientists. Volumes 1 and 2 were published on May 9, 2024; Volumes 3 and 4 will be available this summer.

The term “complexity science” was coined by Warren Weaver, a colleague and collaborator of Shannon’s, in another 1948 paper, also included in Volume 1. “Complexity science” has now grown far beyond Weaver’s definition of “organized complexity” to incorporate many concepts bearing on self-organizing and selected matter. These concepts allow us to understand the extraordinary patterns of the living world.

“What’s been wonderful about this project is that it’s become increasingly clear what this field is trying to do,” says SFI President David Krakauer, editor-in-chief of the SFI Press and editor of the Foundational Papers volumes. “Complexity science is a synthetic science that seeks to understand an adaptive ontology, a synthesis of diverse approaches and perspectives in research, that offers to provide a shared language of principles spanning biology, economic life, computational systems, and cultural processes more generally.”

In the process of tracking citations across the 88 papers, Krakauer identified four fundamental pillars — entropy, evolution, dynamics, and computation. 

“I’ve often wondered why at SFI, given our diversity, it feels as if there’s so much coherence,” he says. “It’s because all of us are familiar with these four constellations of ideas.” The above pillars are grounded in scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century that provide roots for this cohesion, appearing for the first time in the 20th century as what we now call complexity science.

The influence of pioneering thinkers like Shannon and Weaver can be felt across disciplines beyond information theory and mathematics. We see their signatures today in fields spanning cybernetics and general systems theory, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and algorithmic complexity and neural nets. By taking inspiration from the genealogy of complexity, and its growing methodological sophistication, we can face the challenges of today head-on. 

“Complexity science will be essential to all future projects that aim to escape terminal planetary decline,” says Krakauer.


Foundational Papers in Complexity Science

Edited by David C. Krakauer
Publisher and imprint: The SFI Press Scholars Series

Volume I (808 pages)
Publication Date: May 9, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-947864-56-6 (Paperback)
978-1-947864-52-8 (Hardcover)
$24.99 (Paperback), $39.99 (Hardcover)

Volume 2 (692 pages)
Publication Date: May 9, 2024
ISBN: 978-1-947864-57-3 (Paperback)
978-1-947864-53-5 (Hardcover)
$21.99 (Paperback), $34.99 (Hardcover)

Volumes 3 and 4 will be available in the summer of 2024.