Monday, March 16, 2015

Big Bang Theory in Berlin

I am attending a huge physics conference - about 6,000 participants in Berlin, Germany and am here since I was invited by Professor Scholl who organized this conference.

Professor Scholl heard me speak at a workshop on Energy and Complex Networks last summer in Erice, Sicily and extended the kind invitation.

I have enjoyed the talks very much since there are quite a few talks on network problems.

Today was the first full day of presentations and it began with an excellent presentation by Dr. Dirk Helbing from ETH Zurich. He spoke on A Planetary Nervous System to Understand and Measure Our Society. I had last seen Dirk two Septembers ago at a terrific Risk Management Workshop in Zurich, Switzerland, at which we both spoke.

Dirk recorded his presentation this morning and said that it should be posted on Youtube in about 2 weeks.

At the end of the day I immensely enjoyed Dr. Duncan Watts' presentation: Computational Social Science: Exciting Progress and Future Challenges.

The talks here are very interdsciplinary, which I like very much. For example, Watts of small world fame, is a sociologist, who received his PhD from Cornell, and was at Columbia but is now with Microsoft in NYC.

His talk had two parts: the first focused on Twitter and the kind of analyses that he has been doing of rare events - messages that go viral. It was fascinating to learn that about 93% of Twitter posts never get retweeted even once. Those who get retweeted 100 times or more are a small fraction of tweets. He analyzed the network structure of such tweets, which are rare events, and require a huge sample for statistical purposes. He found that some viral tweets have a broadcast structure with the media playing a very important role. He said that if you want your message to spread write an OpEd and get it published in The New York Times. Of course, he noted that Justin Bieber and Katy Perry have 15 million followers so, in effect, that act as broadcasters, very often of images and videos (some of themselves).

In the second part of his presentation he spoke on Crisis Mapping, a project that he has worked on with the United Nations and also using Mechanical Turk.  This really interested me since I am teaching a course on Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare. He was conducting research to map tweets during a disaster for the United Nations to get information about the disaster. He compared the information gleaned during a disaster versus using the same data but having individuals working in groups using Mechanical Turk. He found some unexpected results in that the larger the group the answers were not necessarily better.

Many of the researchers at this conference are interested in socio-economic phenomena and associated problems. I appreciate the methodologies that are being used and the scope of issues that physicists and the like are tackling.

Tomorrow morning I have the pleasure of introducing Dr. Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute when he gives his invited talk on cities.

I will be speaking Wednesday morning.

It has been wonderful spending my spring break at this great conference in stately Berlin!