Terry Bossomaier & David Green
Patterns in the Sand: Computers, Complexity, and Everyday Life

What could have been (and what should have been) a fascinating book that delves into a variety of topics that are united by the common thread of complexity actually falls flat on its face. There are several reasons for the nose dive Patterns in the Sand performs. The largest one is the general tone and writing style. It reads much more like a rough draft of a speech than a finely crafted popular science book.

I was reminded of essays that I wrote when I was in high school. The teacher would say an assignment was to be five pages so I would pick a topic that could easily be covered in several hundred pages and then squeeze a bunch of facts out until I got to the end of the fifth page where the paper would suddenly end. Little was learned, nothing new was discovered, and I'd end up with a "C" grade. Those essays never made it into a book however. Patterns in the Sand reads as though the authors were given a couple of weeks to fill up 200 pages. They throw down numerous facts on some very interesting subjects, shedding no new light on them, and then promptly end when they get to the end of page 199.

There are more problems. The figures and tables look like they were created using a software program from the 1980s. Although the regular text looks fine and is easy to read, the text in the figures and tables looks like it came off a very old dot matrix printer. Very strange stuff from a couple of scientists who are writing about computers and who are up to date enough to have their own website.

I have read books that are three or four times this length that don't go into a fraction of the numerous tangents that this book touches upon. The reader is lead from topic to topic and is left wondering why. On several of the subjects the authors seemingly forget to discuss how complexity relates. In short, the focus is lost in the shuffle. Perhaps complexity wasn't supposed to be what the book is about. If it isn't, though, I'm not sure what the focus is.

That having been said, the book is not completely without value. Someone who wants a very brief introduction to a wide range of incredibly interesting topics may want to delve into this relatively quick read. (A subscription to Science News will also do the trick--probably more effectively.) Topics include fractals, a history of computers, a history of the internet, ant 'consciousness' (or rather communication), artificial intelligence, evolutionary feedback (and equilibrium), DNA, turtle geometry, chaos theory, consciousness, biocomputing, language, abiogenesis, the habitability of planets in our solar system, and several other items for which only a very brief taste could be offered given the short length of the book.

Patterns in the Sand cries out for many things. A start would be a good editor and further development of the many topics mentioned--but not tied in effectively with complexity theory.

From the publisher:
In this fresh look at the science of complexity, a biologist and a computer scientist discuss this profound new field of knowledge, using examples from starfish to traveling salesmen, from car crashes to the workings of the brain.

Terry Bossomaier is Professor of Information Technology at Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. David Green has applied computers to such diverse problems as starfish, bush fires, and DNA, in a research career spanning more than a quarter of a century.