Monday, July 2, 2007

Complex Networks, 2-6 July, Sardinia, Italy

Even at 8 a.m., the sun is blazing hot outside, although it's cool and calm here in the Edificio II of Sardegna Ricerche, a hulking Soviet-style research building in the beautiful mountains near Cagliari, Sardinia. I'm at a satellite meeting of the yearly meeting on Statistical Physics. This satellite (graciously organized and hosted by Alessandro Chessa of the University of Cagliari and Guido Caldarelli of the University of Rome) is focussing on complex networks -- things like social networks, the Internet, food webs, and so on. This is a hot topic in physics, indeed, all of science, and something on which I wrote a book several years ago.

If you look at the physical layout of the Internet (computer linked by telephone lines or satellite links), or the wiring pattern of neurons in the human brain, or the tangled web of social bonds that links together a community (in the image to which I've linked, these are friendships between high school students), you'll see in each case what looks like an unintelligable mess. You'd see the same bewildering complexity in the network of predator-prey relationships in any ecosystem, and in many other settings -- in networks of economic trade, for example. But in fact these and many other natural networks, despite their apparent complexity, possess a hidden order and share deep architectural similarities.

Physicists and mathematicians over the past decade have begun learning how to understand the architecture of such networks, and to build up a real science that explains how and why they have the structures they do. In my book Nexus (or Small World, in the UK) I tried to offer a snapshot of this recent explosion of research.

But lots of work has happened since then, and its seems this exploding field attracts more attention every year, mainly because computers have made it possible to gather and analyze the huge amounts of data that make it possible to map out real world networks. Research on social networks is particularly important, and is showing that the human world often follows precise mathematical patterns that were unsuspected only a few years ago. Over the next few days, I'll try to report on some of the major interesting developments in this field.

Recently in this blog, I've tended to focus on the psychologial side of the social atom -- on the behavior of people as individuals and what influences it. This conference represents work on the other side -- looking at the mathematical patterns that emerge at the larger scale.


Kate said...

As a social scientist (a psychologist), I have been intriqued by the small world phenomena since I first read Milgram's work. I finished Nexus just a few weeks ago and wondered what more recent work has found. I will be an eager consumer of what you have to tell your readers about more recent research findings. The idea that the human world can also be described by precise mathematical patterns is just marvelous, fantastic.

My path here, btw, was from the NYTimes --no doubt a red node--through your excellent guest blog essay of May 23, A New Silent Majority, to your book and, now, here.

Valdis said...

Kate wrote...

" I will be an eager consumer of what you have to tell your readers about more recent research findings."

FYI, our web site and blog contains findings and examples from social network analysis in the business and non-profit worlds.

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