Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mark Newman Speaks on Networks at UMass Amherst

I attended a very enjoyable colloquium yesterday in the physics department at UMass Amherst given by Professor Mark Newman of the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute.

The title of his talk was: Epidemics, Erdos Numbers, and the Internet: The Structure and Function of Complex Networks

Abstract: There are networks in almost every part of our lives. Some of them are familiar and obvious: the Internet, the power grid, the road network. Others are less obvious but just as important. The patterns of friendships or acquaintances between people form a social network; the species in an ecosystem join together to form a food web; the workings of the body's cells are dictated by a metabolic network of chemical reactions. As large-scale data on these networks and others have become available in the last few years, a new science of networks has grown up, drawing on ideas from physics, math, engineering, biology, and other fields to shed light on systems ranging from bacteria to the whole of human society. This talk will examine some new discoveries regarding networks, how those discoveries were made, and what they can tell us about the way the world works.

I had hosted Professor Newman several Octobers ago, when Professor David Parkes and I organized an Exploratory Seminar on Dynamic Networks at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, so it was nice to see him back in Massachusetts.

Some of the network images that he used in his talk yesterday are available here.

His audience yesterday was comprised of physicists, engineers, and computer scientists and yours truly (plus some folks I could not name nor did I know their backgrounds).

His talk (with a wonderful delivery and enthusiasm) focused mostly on network structure, whereas my research focuses on a wide spectrum of networks where flows and user behavior matters, in addition to network structure, from supply chains to transportation networks and the Internet as well as economic and financial networks and electric power networks. He mentioned food webs which I could relate to since my work in network economics is being applied to fisheries. I told him afterwards that I would like to see more work in social networks that includes flows (as the work that I did with my former doctoral student, who is now a Professor, Dr. Tina Wakolbinger, does).

Also, as I tell my students, we in operations research/management science and even in economics can trace the literature on the subject even back to the mid1800s! Networks in terms of model formulations, applications, and even methodologies and algorithms have been major topics of scientific research especially beginning with the 1950s and beyond. The fascination with networks and novel applications have made the subject seem "new" to some and especially to disciplines, who have more recently discovered networks and are applying tools from their disciplines to their study.