Self-assembly, modularity and physical complexity

S. E. Ahnert, I. G. Johnston, T. M. A. Fink, J. P. K. Doye, A. A. Louis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
254 Downloads (Pure)


We present a quantitative measure of physical complexity, based on the amount of information required to build a given physical structure through self-assembly. Our procedure can be adapted to any given geometry, and thus to any given type of physical system. We illustrate our approach using self-assembling polyominoes, and demonstrate the breadth of its potential applications by quantifying the physical complexity of molecules and protein complexes. This measure is particularly well suited for the detection of symmetry and modularity in the underlying structure, and allows for a quantitative definition of structural modularity. Furthermore we use our approach to show that symmetric and modular structures are favoured in biological self-assembly, for example of protein complexes. Lastly, we also introduce the notions of joint, mutual and conditional complexity, which provide a useful distance measure between physical structures.
Original languageEnglish
Article number026117
JournalPhysical Review E
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2010

Bibliographical note

9 pages, submitted for publication


  • cond-mat.stat-mech
  • q-bio.BM
  • q-bio.QM


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