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NOVA scienceNOW: Emergence

Program Overview


Scientists describe emergence, a science that studies how complex patterns and behaviors arise from the actions of individual units acting independently.

This NOVA scienceNOW segment:

  • states that large-scale order develops from small-scale interactions, in which individuals (or individual particles, such as water droplets in a flood or rocks in an avalanche) follow a set of simple rules. The overall pattern that arises from the behavior of the individual parts is called emergent complexity.

  • provides examples of emergence occurring in groups of living things (e.g., schools of fish and flocks of birds), in which individuals following simple rules—such as keeping a certain distance from and going in the same direction as your neighbor, and avoiding predators—gives rise to patterns and behaviors, such as schooling and flocking, not predictable from studying any single individual.

  • points out that emergent complexity can be found in nonliving systems.

  • compares the complexity of emergent behavior in a computer-generated game to that in a far more complex human brain—elements in a computer contact, at most, 10 other elements simultaneously, whereas individual neurons in the human brain sometimes contact 10,000 other neurons simultaneously.

  • reports on scientists studying the emergence of life. The basic agents of life were simple molecules; the rules were the rules of chemistry; and what emerged was something that was one step closer to being considered biological—a first step toward life.

  • describes how emergent complexity suggests a new way of thinking about the universe, from the simplicity of the earliest universe to the complexity of the modern world.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Emergence
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