Advances in science are being sought in newly available opportunities to collect massive quantities of data about complex systems. While key advances are being made in detailed mapping of systems, how to relate this data to solving many of the challenges facing humanity is unclear. The questions we often wish to address require identifying the impact of interventions on the system and that impact is not apparent in the detailed data that is available. Here we review key concepts and motivate a general framework for building larger scale views of complex systems and for characterizing the importance of information in physical, biological and social systems. We provide examples of its application to evolutionary biology with relevance to ecology, biodiversity, pandemics, and human lifespan, and in the context of social systems with relevance to ethnic violence, global food prices, and stock market panic. Framing scientific inquiry as an effort to determine what is important and unimportant is a means for advancing our understanding and addressing many practical concerns, such as economic development or treating disease.
Figure 1: Schematic diagram of a block (with a velocity at a particular moment, v) sliding down an inclined plane. The macroscopic motion subject to gravity and friction may be treated using Newton's laws of motion, while the microscopic behavior of the atoms may be treated using thermodynamics by considering the local oscillations of groups of atoms as random and independent (the probability that one group is in a particular state is independent of the state of another group); the statistical treatment of that movement leads to the determination of pressure and temperature of the block and the inclined plane.
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