Kevin Mitchell and his colleagues at Trinity Dublin recently created and ran an introduction to systems course for their students in multiple disciplines. Last week Kevin posted a comprehensive blog reflecting on the whole process and outcomes.

Reflections on Systems – the Science of Everything
Kevin Mitchell 

Did you ever get the feeling, when you’re working on some problem (scientific or otherwise), that there are some basic principles at play that elude you, but that must have been worked out already by somebody? That’s certainly been my experience in my career in biology, whether it was in developmental biology, human genetics, neuroscience or other areas. I’ve felt the joy of discovering new components of systems and working out some interactions and pathways, but also a nagging feeling that I was not seeing the whole picture – that I was elucidating details of what was happening, but not grasping what the system was doing. I often felt like I lacked the principled framework to even approach that question. This was not because such frameworks don’t exist but because I had never learned about them – systems principles had simply not been part of my education.

It really is very good. Whilst it’s clear that practitioners in any discipline obviously need to learn, experience and understand details of their own area of expertise, there are more abstract systems principles and concepts that are isomorphic about any system and how they work at any scale. Indeed, the “science of everything”. Or as I often say:

The devil may be in the details,
but the angels are in the abstractions.

Also reported are some issues with using specific software tools in the educational exercise. Reminded me of earlier attempts to give all students a basic grounding in computing – which invariably get focussed on learning the technicalities of a particular technology, currently in fashion and therefore useful in the fast evolving world of consumer and business applications. Training people for “jobs” as opposed to educating them. The real value and proper focus of education needs to be in the transferrable abstractions, independent of the implementation technology.

(Previous example:
Computation 101 – Registry Programming Exercise.
Technology requirement – a handful of beans

Kevin’s “Science of Everything” exercise is a “Systems – 101”. Recommended.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.