Coursera: Emergent Phenomena in Science and Everyday Life

 with  Andrea Nicholas, Siddharth A. Parameswaran, Jun Allard, Fred Y.M. Wan, Michael Dennin and Donald Saari
Before the advent of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, most scientists believed that it should be possible to predict the behavior of any object in the universe simply by understanding the behavior of its constituent parts. For instance, if one could write down the equations of motion for every atom in a system, it should be possible to solve those equations (with the aid of a sufficiently large computing device) and make accurate predictions about that system’s future.

However, there are some systems that defy this notion. Consider a living cell, which consists mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen along with other trace elements. We can study these components individually without ever imagining how combining them in just the right way can lead to something as complex and wonderful as a living organism! Thus, we can consider life to be an emergent property of what is essentially an accumulation of constituent parts that are somehow organized in a very precise way.

This course lets you explore the concept of emergence using examples from materials science, mathematics, biology, physics, and neuroscience to illustrate how ordinary components when brought together can collectively yield unexpected, surprising behaviors.

Note: The fractal image (Sierpinkski Triangle) depicted on the course home page was generated by a software application called XaoS 3.4, which is distributed by the Free Software Foundation under a GNU General Public License.

Upon completing this course, you will be able to:
1. Explain the difference in assumptions between an emergent versus reductive approach to science.
2. Explain why the reductivist approach is understood by many to be inadequate as a means of describing and predicting complex systems.
3. Describe how the length scale used to examine a phenomenon can contribute to how you analyze and understand it.
4. Explain why the search for general principles that explain emergent phenomena make them an active locus of scientific investigation.
5. Discuss examples of emergent phenomena and explain why they are classified as emergent.


Welcome - Let's Get Started
In this module we'll introduce the concept of emergence and provide an orientation to how this course will proceed.

The Mystery of Foam
Can a substance be both a solid and a liquid? In this module we’ll take a close look at our first emergent phenomena, complex fluids.

Chaotic Dynamics
Are seemingly random events truly random? In this module, we'll examine ways that deterministic processes can produce the appearance of randomness.

Pattern Formation and Systems Biology
Have you ever wondered why tigers have spots and leopards have spots? This module helps to explain how these and other patterns form in nature.

Quantum Coherence, Many-Body States, and Quantum Computing
How can we study quantum events from both a reductionist and emergent perspective? This module takes a look at the atomic and quantum level of some everyday phenomena.

One of the most awe inspiring emergent phenomena is how consciousness emerges from complex collections of atoms and molecules. In this module, we’ll take a look at how the various regions of our brain coordinate and interact to produce consciousness.

2 Student
Cost Free Online Course (Audit)
Subject Science
Provider Coursera
Language English
Certificates Paid Certificate Available
Calendar 6 weeks long
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2 reviews for Coursera's Emergent Phenomena in Science and Everyday Life

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2 years ago
Michael B. completed this course, spending 1 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.
At the time of writing; this is a deeply flawed course. I started this course at the beginning of February 2016, and have finished all assignments in 5 modules that include a peer-review assignment. Thus far, I have not received any feedback for any of the submitted assignments (they appear stuck in "grading in progr Read More
At the time of writing; this is a deeply flawed course. I started this course at the beginning of February 2016, and have finished all assignments in 5 modules that include a peer-review assignment. Thus far, I have not received any feedback for any of the submitted assignments (they appear stuck in "grading in progress" status.


1. Course has no discussion board or forum. No way to submit feedback to the course team. Pretty unusual for most courses I've entered; and I can't imagine this is either a purposeful oversight or an accident.

2. It feels like an unfinished project -- abandoned by its developers and students alike... Only a few learners appear to have progressed through the course beyond the third or fourth week (or at least have attempted the assignments which would benefit from some support and discussion).

3. Although the topics are interesting and unique -- the material itself is quite shallow. This is really a topic taster course, with only about 20-30 minutes video for each of 5 topics. Each topic includes a separate "visiting" professor (or two) discussing their specialty, and ending with an interview with the main instructor. In other contexts this could work; but in this case its more disorienting and disjointed.

4. The learner target level is uneven. in some cases it seems directed towards a junior high school audience and in other cases perhaps a college or university audience.

5. The assignments were quite unusual, not in a bad way. But like the rest of the course, could have benefited from some support. I did feel that these were somewhat tangential to the topics for discussion... And at least for me, they were reminiscent of "junior high" type study questions.


1. It does attempt to create an interesting frame and provide continuity to the course material. It brings the viewers into and through a real museum with some on-location video -- to explore phenomena; .

2. The main professor was an able tour guide for the short snippets where he briefly introduced each topic and provided some insight. The introductory videos tended to be engaging but unfortunately were too short to really explore topics in depth)

3. The interview sections were the highlights of the course for me. The videos were professionally shot and edited.. and although there were some moments where the scripted questions seemed bit forced... they were generally an improvement over the talking head lectures.

In summary, I liked that the course provided some alignment with a real museum. However. I felt my time would have been better served taking a museum trip. As a companion course for a museum tour it needs improvement -- I would suggest that this MOOC doesn't quite live up to its promise nor to the quality of its videos....
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2 years ago
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Anonymous is taking this course right now.
I am particularly pleased with this course because it inspires exploration and critical thinking, while providing a glimpse into current scientific inquiry.
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