Can a Field in Which Physicists Think Like Economists Help Us Achieve Universal Knowledge?

Can a Field in Which Physicists Think Like Economists Help Us Achieve Universal Knowledge? by David Auerbach (Slate Magazine)
The Theory of Everything and Then Some: In complexity theory, physicists try to understand economics while sociologists think like biologists. Can they bring us any closer to universal knowledge?

A discussion of complexity and complexity theorist John H. Miller’s new book: A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society.

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Global Language Networks

Recent research on global language networks has interesting relations to big history, complexity economics, and current politics.

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.


Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

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“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

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Forthcoming ITBio-related book from Sean Carroll: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”

Physicist Sean Carroll has a forthcoming book entitled The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, May 10, 2016) that will be of interest to many of our readers.

In catching up on blogs/reading from the holidays, I’ve noticed that physicist Sean Carroll has a forthcoming book entitled The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, May 10, 2016) that will be of interest to many of our readers. One can already pre-order the book via Amazon.

Prior to the holidays Sean wrote a blogpost that contains a full overview table of contents, which will give everyone a stronger idea of its contents. For convenience I’ll excerpt it below.

I’ll post a review as soon as a copy arrives, but it looks like a strong new entry in the category of popular science books on information theory, biology and complexity as well as potentially the areas of evolution, the origin of life, and physics in general.

As a side bonus, for those reading this today (1/15/16), I’ll note that Carroll’s 12 part lecture series from The Great Courses The Higgs Boson and Beyond (The Learning Company, February 2015) is 80% off.

The Big Picture



0. Prologue

* Part One: Cosmos

  • 1. The Fundamental Nature of Reality
  • 2. Poetic Naturalism
  • 3. The World Moves By Itself
  • 4. What Determines What Will Happen Next?
  • 5. Reasons Why
  • 6. Our Universe
  • 7. Time’s Arrow
  • 8. Memories and Causes

* Part Two: Understanding

  • 9. Learning About the World
  • 10. Updating Our Knowledge
  • 11. Is It Okay to Doubt Everything?
  • 12. Reality Emerges
  • 13. What Exists, and What Is Illusion?
  • 14. Planets of Belief
  • 15. Accepting Uncertainty
  • 16. What Can We Know About the Universe Without Looking at It?
  • 17. Who Am I?
  • 18. Abducting God

* Part Three: Essence

  • 19. How Much We Know
  • 20. The Quantum Realm
  • 21. Interpreting Quantum Mechanics
  • 22. The Core Theory
  • 23. The Stuff of Which We Are Made
  • 24. The Effective Theory of the Everyday World
  • 25. Why Does the Universe Exist?
  • 26. Body and Soul
  • 27. Death Is the End

* Part Four: Complexity

  • 28. The Universe in a Cup of Coffee
  • 29. Light and Life
  • 30. Funneling Energy
  • 31. Spontaneous Organization
  • 32. The Origin and Purpose of Life
  • 33. Evolution’s Bootstraps
  • 34. Searching Through the Landscape
  • 35. Emergent Purpose
  • 36. Are We the Point?

* Part Five: Thinking

  • 37. Crawling Into Consciousness
  • 38. The Babbling Brain
  • 39. What Thinks?
  • 40. The Hard Problem
  • 41. Zombies and Stories
  • 42. Are Photons Conscious?
  • 43. What Acts on What?
  • 44. Freedom to Choose

* Part Six: Caring

  • 45. Three Billion Heartbeats
  • 46. What Is and What Ought to Be
  • 47. Rules and Consequences
  • 48. Constructing Goodness
  • 49. Listening to the World
  • 50. Existential Therapy
  • Appendix: The Equation Underlying You and Me
  • Acknowledgments
  • Further Reading
  • References
  • Index

Source: Sean Carroll | The Big Picture: Table of Contents

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Can computers help us read the mind of nature? by Paul Davies | The Guardian

Paul Davies waxes poetic about the application of physics, chemistry, and information theory to biology, genetics, and the origin of life.

For too long, scientists focused on what we can see. Now they are at last starting to decode life’s software.

“A soup of chemicals may spontaneously form a reaction network, but what does it take for such a molecular muddle to begin coherently organising information flow and storage? Rather than looking to biology or chemistry, we can perhaps dream that advances in the mathematics of information theory hold the key.”

Paul Davies, physicist, writer, and broadcaster
in Can computers help us read the mind of nature? in The Guardian


 ‘When we look at a plant or an animal we see the physical forms, not the swirling patterns of instructions inside them.’ Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA
‘When we look at a plant or an animal we see the physical forms, not the swirling patterns of instructions inside them.’ Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA
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César Hidalgo on Why Information Grows | The RSA

I’ve just recently finished the excellent book Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo. I hope to post a reasonable review soon, but the ideas in it are truly excellent and fit into a thesis I’ve been working on for a while. For those interested, he does a reasonable synopsis of some of his thought in the talk he gave the the RSA recently, the video can be found below.

The underlying mathematics of what he’s discussing are fantastic (though he doesn’t go into them in his book), but the overarching implications of his ideas with relation to the future of humankind as a function of our economic system and society could have some significant impact.

“César visits the RSA to present a new view of the relationship between individual and collective knowledge, linking information theory, economics and biology to explain the deep evolution of social and economic systems.

In a radical rethink of what an economy is, one of WIRED magazine’s 50 People Who Could Change the World, César Hidalgo argues that it is the measure of a nation’s cultural complexity – the nexus of people, ideas and invention – rather than its GDP or per-capita income, that explains the success or failure of its economic performance. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order itself.”

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The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA — NOVA Next | PBS

The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA by Alex RileyAlex Riley (NOVA Next | PBS)
How a mathematical breakthrough from the 1960s now powers everything from spacecraft to cell phones.

Concurrent with the recent Pluto fly by, Alex Riley has a great popular science article on PBS that helps put the application of information theory and biology into perspective for the common person. Like a science version of “The Princess Bride”, this story has a little bit of everything that could be good and entertaining: information theory, biology, DNA, Reed-Solomon codes, fossils, interplanetary exploration, mathematics, music, genetics, computers, and even paleontology. Fans of Big History are sure to love the interconnections presented here.

Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Microscopic view of glass DNA storage beads
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Molecular Programming Project

Molecular Programming Project (Molecular Programming Project)


“The Molecular Programming Project aims to develop computer science principles for programming information-bearing molecules like DNA and RNA to create artificial biomolecular programs of similar complexity. Our long-term vision is to establish molecular programming as a subdiscipline of computer science — one that will enable a yet-to-be imagined array of applications from chemical circuitry for interacting with biological molecules to nanoscale computing and molecular robotics.”

Source: MPP: Home

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A world of languages – and how many speak them (Infographic)

An infographic from the South China Morning Post has some interesting statistics about which many modern people don’t know (or remember). It’s very interesting to see the distribution of languages and where they’re spoken. Of particular note that most will miss, even from this infographic, is that 839 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea (11.8% of all known languages on Earth). Given the effects of history and modernity, imagine how many languages there might have been without them.


A World of Languages

Source: INFOGRAPHIC: A world of languages – and how many speak them

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Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies

I just ordered a copy of Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo. Although it seems more focused on economics, the base theory seems to fit right into some similar thoughts I’ve long held about biology.

Why Information Grows: The Evolutiion of Order from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo
Why Information Grows: The Evolutiion of Order from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo


From the book description:

“What is economic growth? And why, historically, has it occurred in only a few places? Previous efforts to answer these questions have focused on institutions, geography, finances, and psychology. But according to MIT’s antidisciplinarian César Hidalgo, understanding the nature of economic growth demands transcending the social sciences and including the natural sciences of information, networks, and complexity. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order.

At first glance, the universe seems hostile to order. Thermodynamics dictates that over time, order–or information–will disappear. Whispers vanish in the wind just like the beauty of swirling cigarette smoke collapses into disorderly clouds. But thermodynamics also has loopholes that promote the growth of information in pockets. Our cities are pockets where information grows, but they are not all the same. For every Silicon Valley, Tokyo, and Paris, there are dozens of places with economies that accomplish little more than pulling rocks off the ground. So, why does the US economy outstrip Brazil’s, and Brazil’s that of Chad? Why did the technology corridor along Boston’s Route 128 languish while Silicon Valley blossomed? In each case, the key is how people, firms, and the networks they form make use of information.

Seen from Hidalgo’s vantage, economies become distributed computers, made of networks of people, and the problem of economic development becomes the problem of making these computers more powerful. By uncovering the mechanisms that enable the growth of information in nature and society, Why Information Grows lays bear the origins of physical order and economic growth. Situated at the nexus of information theory, physics, sociology, and economics, this book propounds a new theory of how economies can do, not just more, but more interesting things.”

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The Information Universe Conference

"The Information Universe" Conference in The Netherlands in October hits several of the sweet spots for areas involving information theory, physics, the origin of life, complexity, computer science, and microbiology.

Yesterday, via a notification from Lanyard, I came across a notice for the upcoming conference “The Information Universe” which hits several of the sweet spots for areas involving information theory, physics, the origin of life, complexity, computer science, and microbiology. It is scheduled to occur from October 7-9, 2015 at the Infoversum Theater in Groningen, The Netherlands.

I’ll let their site speak for itself below, but they already have an interesting line up of speakers including:

Keynote speakers

  • Erik Verlinde, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Alex Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor of Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, USA
  • Gerard ‘t Hooft, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Utrecht, Netherlands
  • Gregory Chaitin, Professor Mathematics and Computer Science, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
  • Charley Lineweaver, Professor Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University, Australia
  • Lude Franke, Professor System Genetics, University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands
Infoversum Theater, The Netherlands
Infoversum Theater, The Netherlands

Conference synopsis from their homepage:

The main ambition of this conference is to explore the question “What is the role of information in the physics of our Universe?”. This intellectual pursuit may have a key role in improving our understanding of the Universe at a time when we “build technology to acquire and manage Big Data”, “discover highly organized information systems in nature” and “attempt to solve outstanding issues on the role of information in physics”. The conference intends to address the “in vivo” (role of information in nature) and “in vitro” (theory and models) aspects of the Information Universe.

The discussions about the role of information will include the views and thoughts of several disciplines: astronomy, physics, computer science, mathematics, life sciences, quantum computing, and neuroscience. Different scientific communities hold various and sometimes distinct formulations of the role of information in the Universe indicating we still lack understanding of its intrinsic nature. During this conference we will try to identify the right questions, which may lead us towards an answer.

  • Is the universe one big information processing machine?
  • Is there a deeper layer in quantum mechanics?
  • Is the universe a hologram?
  • Is there a deeper physical description of the world based on information?
  • How close/far are we from solving the black hole information paradox?
  • What is the role of information in highly organized complex life systems?
  • The Big Data Universe and the Universe : are our numerical simulations and Big Data repositories (in vitro) different from real natural system (in vivo)?
  • Is this the road to understanding dark matter, dark energy?

The conference will be held in the new 260 seats planetarium theatre in Groningen, which provides an inspiring immersive 3D full dome display, e.g. numerical simulations of the formation of our Universe, and anything else our presenters wish to bring in. The digital planetarium setting will be used to visualize the theme with modern media.

The Information Universe Website

Additional details about the conference including the participants, program, venue, and registration can also be found at their website.

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Videos from the NIMBioS Workshop on Information and Entropy in Biological Systems

Videos from the NIMBioS workshop on Information and Entropy in Biological Systems from April 8-10, 2015 are slowly starting to appear on YouTube.

Videos from the April 8-10, 2015, NIMBioS workshop on Information and Entropy in Biological Systems are slowly starting to appear on YouTube.

John Baez, one of the organizers of the workshop, is also going through them and adding some interesting background and links on his Azimuth blog as well for those who are looking for additional details and depth

Additonal resources from the Workshop:


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Nicolas Perony: Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory | TED

Animal behavior isn't complicated, but it is complex. Nicolas Perony studies how individual animals — be they Scottish Terriers, bats or meerkats — follow simple rules that, collectively, create larger patterns of behavior. And how this complexity born of simplicity can help them adapt to new circumstances, as they arise.

For those who are looking for a good, simple, and entertaining explanation of the concept of emergent properties and behavior within complexity theory (or Big History), I just came across a nice TED talk that simplifies complexity using a few animal examples including a cute puppy video as well as a bat and a meerkat example. The latter two also have implications for evolution and survival which are lovely examples as well.

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Book Review: “Complexity: A Guided Tour” by Melanie Mitchell

Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie MitchellMelanie Mitchell (
Complexity: A Guided Tour Book Cover Complexity: A Guided Tour
Melanie Mitchell
Popular Science
Oxford University Press
May 28, 2009

This book provides an intimate, highly readable tour of the sciences of complexity, which seek to explain how large-scale complex, organized, and adaptive behavior can emerge from simple interactions among myriad individuals. The author, a leading complex systems scientist, describes the history of ideas, current research, and future prospects in this vital scientific effort.

This is handily one of the best, most interesting, and (to me at least) the most useful popularly written science books I’ve yet to come across. Most popular science books usually bore me to tears and end up being only pedantic for their historical backgrounds, but this one is very succinct with some interesting viewpoints (some of which I agree with and some of which my intuition says are terribly wrong) on the overall structure presented.

For those interested in a general and easily readable high-level overview of some of the areas of research I’ve been interested in (information theory, thermodynamics, entropy, microbiology, evolution, genetics, along with computation, dynamics, chaos, complexity, genetic algorithms, cellular automata, etc.) for the past two decades, this is really a lovely and thought-provoking book.

At the start I was disappointed that there were almost no equations in the book to speak of – and perhaps this is why I had purchased it when it came out and it’s subsequently been sitting on my shelf for so long. The other factor that prevented me from reading it was the depth and breadth of other more technical material I’ve read which covers the majority of topics in the book. I ultimately found myself not minding so much that there weren’t any/many supporting equations aside from a few hidden in the notes at the end of the text in most part because Dr. Mitchell does a fantastic job of pointing out some great subtleties within the various subjects which comprise the broader concept of complexity which one generally would take several years to come to on one’s own and at far greater expense of their time. Here she provides a much stronger picture of the overall subjects covered and this far outweighed the lack of specificity. I honestly wished I had read the book when it was released and it may have helped me to me more specific in my own research. Fortunately she does bring up several areas I will need to delve more deeply into and raised several questions which will significantly inform my future work.

In general, I wish there were more references I hadn’t read or been aware of yet, but towards the end there were a handful of topics relating to fractals, chaos, computer science, and cellular automata which I have been either ignorant of or which are further down my reading lists and may need to move closer to the top. I look forward to delving into many of these shortly. As a simple example, I’ve seen Zipf’s law separately from the perspectives of information theory, linguistics, and even evolution, but this is the first time I’ve seen it related to power laws and fractals.

I definitely appreciated the fact that Dr. Mitchell took the time to point out her own personal feelings on several topics and more so that she explicitly pointed them out as her own gut instincts instead of mentioning them passingly as if they were provable science which is what far too many other authors would have likely done. There are many viewpoints she takes which I certainly don’t agree with, but I suspect that it’s because I’m coming at things from the viewpoint of an electrical engineer with a stronger background in information theory and microbiology while hers is closer to that of computer science. She does mention that her undergraduate background was in mathematics, but I’m curious what areas she specifically studied to have a better understanding of her specific viewpoints.

Her final chapter looking at some of the pros and cons of the topic(s) was very welcome, particularly in light of previous philosophic attempts like cybernetics and general systems theory which I (also) think failed because of their lack of specificity. These caveats certainly help to place the scientific philosophy of complexity into a much larger context. I will generally heartily agree with her viewpoint (and that of others) that there needs to be a more rigorous mathematical theory underpinning the overall effort. I’m sure we’re all wondering “Where is our Newton?” or to use her clever aphorism that we’re “waiting for Carnot.” (Sounds like it should be a Tom Stoppard play title, doesn’t it?)

I might question her brief inclusion of her own Ph.D. thesis work in the text, but it did actually provide a nice specific and self-contained example within the broader context and also helped to tie several of the chapters together.

My one slight criticism of the work would be the lack of better footnoting within the text. Though many feel that footnote numbers within the text or inclusion at the bottom of the pages detracts from the “flow” of the work, I found myself wishing that she had done so here, particularly as I’m one of the few who actually cares about the footnotes and wants to know the specific references as I read. I hope that Oxford eventually publishes an e-book version that includes cross-linked footnotes in the future for the benefit of others.

I can heartily recommend this book to any fan of science, but I would specifically recommend it to any undergraduate science or engineering major who is unsure of what they’d specifically like to study and might need some interesting areas to take a look at. I will mention that one of the tough parts of the concept of complexity is that it is so broad and general that it encompasses over a dozen other fields of study each of which one could get a Ph.D. in without completely knowing the full depth of just one of them much less the full depth of all of them. The book is so well written that I’d even recommend it to senior researchers in any of the above mentioned fields as it is certainly sure to provide not only some excellent overview history of each, but it is sure to bring up questions and thoughts that they’ll want to include in their future researches in their own specific sub-areas of expertise.

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