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Physicists Intervene To Understand Problems of Society

05/09/2009

When one hears the word “Physicist,” connotations of isolated scientists dealing with mysterious forces and physical phenomena involving matter come to mind.  But just like the elements and concepts these specialists usually study, the worlds they explore are rapidly expanding into comprehending human behavior, including economics and the complex forces that affect us all.  Welcome to “Econophysics” which deals with “statistical mechanics.”  This field of study is rather new…it started in the 1990’s, and you are likely to hear a lot about it in the coming years…and ways it can improve your life. 

Take the physicists who are studying how to predict future economic catastrophes.  According to the April edition of Portfolio (which like some forms of matter has now disappeared), scientists are laboring to supplement the work of economists to study the intricacies of economic behavior to foresee future financial crisis.  The magazine reports physicists can build and study a complete model of the economy to recognize dynamic economic interactions which might help us avert future recessions by studying early warning signs.  Their work is already being pursued in understanding the regulation of energy markets in Illinois.

But that’s not all.  Computational and socio-physicists are also exploring warfare models and civil conflicts and are detecting patterns of behavior that map and suggest military and casualty trends. (See Gourley TED video above).  The results of this ground breaking but controversial scientific research may someday help policy makers avert war, not just study and react to it.

There are reports econophysicists have even probed such varied problems as cardiac patterns, stock price fluctuations and earthquake predictions.  Might they someday help save you, a loved one or your business? 

In a September, 2005 article published by Physics Today, the authors comment that “an emerging body of work by physicists addressing questions of economic organization and function suggests new approaches to economics and a broadening of the scope of physics.”  Books, journals and conferences have sprung up to discuss this new endeavor.  Just look at the publications on Scribd right now for proof.  Spreading quickly as a serious field of study, the Physics Today article reports that “physics departments worldwide are granting PhD theses for research in economics.”  On one University website studying econophysics, the question is asked, “What is the flagship achievement of economics, apart from its recurrent inability to predict and avert crisis, including the worldwide credit crunch?”  Indeed, physics may be the missing element to help us get a better grip on the dynamics of money.

Clearly, this work is seen as outside the mainstream…but from a layperson’s perspective, it seems rational to delve into this science in an effort to better understand finance and behavior.  Why not?  The growing art of combining concepts and models of physics with economics and human behavior is intriguing.  Why should we look with tunnel vision to understand the failure of Wall Street by confining our search to the work product of the very same economists and bankers who helped create our present near-depression?  If we broaden our scrutiny of events by employing the work different technical disciplines, we might be able to better appreciate, and avoid, future negative events.

It is the real-time interaction of experts within different disciplines that can solve many of today’s vexing problems.  No longer need we study economics with just economists. We are not limited to understanding the psychology of international and national human conflict by restricting ourselves to the political scientists.  Psychologists should not work alone in understanding brain behavior.  By introducing mathematicians, those who study the physical sciences and other forensic investigators of complex systems, we can better chart, and prepare for, the rush of events that make up today’s evolving fabric of future human history.

The message here: Collaboration among disciplines is an imperative.

Last year some friends and I sponsored an affordable housing design course at an internationally acclaimed School of Architecture.  This course added a twist, however.  We brought in engineers to work with the architects to collaborate on selection of the best physical materials to use in the production of real world affordable living units.  The first meeting was amazing…the engineering professors had never worked with their counterparts in the architecture department and were thrilled at the opportunity.  All they needed to do was talk with each other.  The result was exponentially more productive than if the architectural students worked in a vacuum just on paper and excluded other mindsets and ideas.  The revelation that the two departments had never collaborated before 2008 was, to say the least, shockingly sad, however.  That course proved interdisciplinary collaboration can, and does work, but is under utilized.

Assembling groups of scientists from many different disciplines, including statistical physicists, to attack key problems which society once only looked at from a one-dimensional perspective is, perhaps, the warp speed wormhole we need for significant problem solving.  It’s social science at a new level. It’s just like the “social networking” we you and I are engaged in on WordPress, Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace and Scribd, but at more technical levels.  We need to open our minds to new explanations. No problem is too hard to tackle if we infuse unconventional approaches to create solutions. Go physicists. Go scientists. Go Gourley. 

Let’s create shared emergence of collaboration in this age of intricate challenges.

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