3D image of an ore deposit.
Complexity in physical systems
Scientists working across CSIRO are applying Complex Systems Science to physical systems, addressing challenges as diverse as understanding climate change, improving urban sustainability and predicting how ore-bodies are formed.
22 January 2008 | Updated 14 October 2011
CSIRO is taking an interdisciplinary approach to Complex Systems Science (CSS), and applying techniques to help understand complex behaviour in a range of physical systems within the fields of engineering and Earth dynamics.
With support from the CSIRO Centre for Complex Systems Science, scientists from various backgrounds are sharing knowledge and applying CSS approaches to physical systems topics at the interface between disciplines such as:
Our scientists are developing and applying new analytical techniques in CSS to reshape our understanding, provide practical solutions and share techniques so that those from one context can be applied to another.
What is Complex Systems Science and what are physical systems?
The weather, electricity supply networks and traffic flow are all examples of complex systems – large aggregations of many smaller interacting parts.
Each of these examples occurs in the physical, non-living world.
Two properties set a complex system apart from one that is merely complicated:
Emergence is the appearance of behaviour that could not be anticipated from a knowledge of the parts of the system alone.
Cyclones, tornadoes or weather systems are emergent features of the motion of air particles on the spinning Earth. Electricity blackouts are emergent features of power supply networks.
Complicated artefacts like motor cars or power plants also have emergent features in this sense so a further property is needed to distinguish complex systems. This is self-organisation.
This means that there is no external controller or planner engineering the appearance of these emergent features as they appear spontaneously.
The challenge of understanding and predicting complex system behaviour has risen in importance with the realisation that much of the unpredictable behaviour observed in real world situations is a function of the complex systems operating around us.
To improve our understanding of complex system behaviour, scientists have developed mathematical techniques based on computer models of these systems, to help think about them in new ways.
CSIRO research into complex physical systems takes place at the interface between disciplines like mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology and engineering.
These models are revealing and explaining a range of emergent system behaviours and providing a deeper understanding of entire systems and their responses, with often surprising and unexpected results.
CSIRO is undertaking work on a range of complex physical systems, with particular emphases on engineering and climate systems.
Some of our research applications of CSS in energy, manufacturing and engineering systems include:
creating robust, efficient energy, water and communication distribution networks across Australia that can cope with variable loads and are resilient to damage
understanding the interactions between urban infrastructure by treating cities as living ecologies
developing a 'self-aware' skin for a future spacecraft that can sense when and where it has been damaged and repair itself
optimising investment decisions into small-scale renewable energy
understanding the movement of bubbles and particles in industrial scale flotation cells
novel drug discovery using neural networks.
Some of our research applications of CSS in the dynamics of the Earth's climate and natural systems include:
analysing the structure of turbulent eddies in urban and vegetative canopies to improve weather and climate models
measuring surface-atmosphere exchange of carbon dioxide
improving seasonal forecasting of Australian climate
understanding chemical and biological reactions beneath the Earth’s surface with a focus on geothermal energy
modelling the distribution of rock fractures and ore body formation
understanding the shape and spread of bushfire fronts.
Read about Complex or just complicated: what is a complex system?.