Monday, November 16, 2009

Six degrees of Pong and the Bacon Number

I am still reading at 10:13 PM, but wanted to take a break to post. Duncan Watts sure does get around. His circle of friends (or shall I call them a network of brainiacs) seem endless. He is well connected on the research front. I feel like I have been bouncing across the pages like the old video game ...Pong. He bounces back and forth from Steve to Mark to Peter to Chuck to Mark (again) and Jon . He collaborates with his cohorts to explore questions of networks, how they form, how they grow, how they spread or what makes them die.

"what are the patterns of interactions between individuals in a large system that we should pay attention to?" (page 27) He approaches his topic from different angles, studying from the viewpoint of the cricket, the macro to micro, individuals to mobs, physical to virtual. Watts is trying to understand the dynamics of networks, communication and systems.

He uses available free data, to study trends, statistics and different distribution patterns, trying to understand networks. One such interesting piece of data analysis produced the Kevin Bacon – Distribution of Actors According to Bacon Number -- amazing! Watts studies message chains and relation links trying to understand characteristics and behaviors. “…almost everyone in the giant component can be reached in 4 steps or less.”( page 94)

Watts talks about problems beyond the small world network with scale and cutoff regions (page 112), “the real constraint is with people themselves, who only have enough time, energy, and interest to befriend so many others before the shear effort of it all overwhelms them.”

He seems to float around the academia circuit like a virus, connecting, stimulating and infecting others with his ideas and theories on networks systems. I will say that he does attack an issue and not let go. He draws others in from his net of relationships to gain insight to his theories. He looks at the components, cave, and clusters of small networks. He is himself, a research specimen of his network investigation.

Watts uses mathematics, science, biology, psychology, sociology and physics to name a few approaches to attack his theories. He even notes that it is dangerous to assume from previous research such as the findings of Milgram. (page 132) I thought this insight was key, as research can be skewed by the researcher’s biases and pre-conceived notions about conclusions.

So how does this relate to my world? I am working with a team of people about to implement an electronic clinical research management system. This system will give researchers electronic access to other studies and the data that results on a broad scale much like the scientific publishing repository for prepublication research papers of sub disciplines of physics called the LANL (page 123). Eventually, there will be a repository of (de-identified) data that can be shares and mined for research purposes to reach conclusions using networks to study systems much like these in this book. Collaboration will hopefully open the door to treatment and scientific development that could lead to curing diseases.

He sums it up on page 15," thing I hope to convey in this book is a sense of where the science of networks comes from, how it fits into the larger scheme of scientific progress, and what it can tell us about the world itself."

I am hopeful that scientific collaboration through multidisciplinary networks can lead to exciting new discoveries and cures.


James said...

It seems strange to think that there are similarities between such different branches in science. Collaboration works wonders, and with research in networking and the tools to do it the results in the future should be interesting.

Jax D. said...

I've actually seen this collaboration happen. In my undergrad years I was on the Sooner Racing Team as a Journalism student I had no reason to be there especially in the shop. The thing is I was there because i saw things totally differently than the Mechanical Engineering guys. We all saw stuff differently and because of it our design came from very different places. Out network because of this was also changed and we were able to reach out to a different demographic for help monetarily as well.

I say network and get out there you never know what or who you'll find willing to help you.

Anonymous said...

Great observation about Watt's being a product of the very networks that he is studying. One of the things I found most interesting about the book was that he was able to apply his theories to so many different types of networks in a cross-discplinary approach. Commonly held views on how networks function all of a sudden are not as intuitive as we once thought. His explanation of the shortcomings of the Milgram and Bacon examples clrealy illustrate that the notion of "six degrees of seperation" cannot be applied across the board to all networks.

April said...

I'm glad to see that someone else in academia is focusing on interdisciplinary studies. Considering this is the basis of study for many students in our program, it's encouraging to know that UTD isn't the only organization that realizes that all of the disciplines relate to, and affect, each other.

Aline McKenzie said...

The degrees-of-separation phenomenon reminds me of fractals. You might meet Person X (Xavier) through a chain of 2 to 4 contexts. But once you've met him, that collapses to a direct link: You and him. You might then meet person Q (Queenie) five degrees away of the new friend, but once you've met her, *that's* a direct node too.

So what was originally a chain of, say, 10 degrees of separation becomes a single link.

If we were immortal and had good memories, we'd probably know everyone in the world after a few centuries.

John Kay said...

Reading his tour through the disciplines, illustrations, mathematicians, and scientists does resemble watching Pong. Watts does accomplish his goal (i.e., “convey…a sense of where the science of networks comes from” p. 15), but the book seems to need additional chapters to present applications of network theory, especially in regards to media. I learned in a selling class that we need to avoid technical erudition (i.e., telling more details than needed), something that scientists enjoy doing.

kristalbrook said...

My favorite parts of his book were when he described the different ways he met his collaborators. I work best in team environments and found his stories very inspiring.

Mary Goes To School said...

I also enjoyed the fact that Watts was a real product or example of his own work. He was really able to use so many of his contacts to find new people to collaborate with. I also enjoyed his stories of how he came to meet those people. It really broke up all of that math/ science stuff. :)