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James Brody June 8th, 2010 02:45 PM

Bursting: A Review in a Burst of 1200 Words
Barabási, Albert L (2010) Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do. NY: Dutton

My favorite – indeed, my only – Hungarian did some physics, assembled Linked, published it in 2002, and not only made sociology interesting but also brought rational order to the communications industry. Networks occur whenever things – neurons, streets, or mobile networks – grow. They are not random and captured by bell curves but are governed by power laws that allow for more extreme scores – both high and low. Networks are also emergent, with earlier arrivals’s screening and adjusting later arrivals. This notion fits well with one from evolutionary biology: A first species becomes part of the environment for whatever comes second, third, or fourth.

Bursts, eight years later, is a second quest for deep order in human behavior. But instead of clusters, hubs, and networks, now we are after individuals. Are they predictable? And to what degree? And why?

“For everything there is a season and a time…”
Bursts appear almost everywhere that something lives. Email transmission, Levy flight, DNA activation, epidemics (and probably our affection for the Beatles), ER visits, scientific publications, diseases in individuals (long periods of health punctuated with bursts of doctor visits), and depressive episodes. For every one of us there are spurts for email, spurts for writing, and spurts for chasing our kids.

Barabási decorated his text with stories about the FBI, Homeland Security, studies of albatross flight, cellphone use, John Twelve Hawks, “Georgers” who track the distances covered by a dollar bill, and lots more.

He also underscores an old bit of wisdom: predicting the future entails describing the past. “Now” – in Stu Kauffman’s language – resembles a narrow phase boundary between five minutes ago and five minutes later. If you know where Joe Blifspk is Tuesday and Wednesday, you have a pretty good idea where he is to be on Thursday. Or information about Thursday allows you to back up to Wednesday. Barabási rests this point on data, sometimes from 100,000 or more observations.

There is an important refinement: Power laws describe differences in activity levels between individuals, Gaussian bells characterize the averages found in repetitive measures of the same person. Power laws allow for extreme outliers but even outliers, when one is compared with himself, are no more varied than the average folks. The power distributions are between individuals rather than between comparisons for the same individual.

If Curly punches twelve people on Monday, he is very likely to punch about the same number every day the rest of the week. If you’re kind of nutty, you’re going to remain kind of nutty and – for several reasons – draw nutty people to your funeral. A third example, MIT students are either home or at school or for two nights per week – Friday and Saturday, of course – at a bar. They differ when you compare individuals but the differences are usually small even for this creative bunch and the differences that occur for any one of them on different days of the week are even smaller.

Outcome: Knowing the baseline allows you to make fairly accurate predictions even about individuals.

Lesser things…
Bursts – surprise – is written in a burst format! That is, Barabási shuttlecocked back and forth from his Transylvanian ancestors that lived in 1514 to contemporary investigations of bursts in human behavior. We cycled then, we cycle now. But, like the rest of my life, these transitions in the book were abrupt and confusing but help to make his point once I caught on to the pattern.

Shock! Bursts describe evolutionary changes. As Darwin noted, there appear to be evolutionary changes per saltum. Things can jump from one form into another. We now know that there is a biological architecture that underlies bursts and gives a digital structure within analog events. Even Cuvier in the early 1800s knew that insects and worms are the same creature in inverse arrangements. And missing fossils may be missing because transitional forms never existed! Barabási suggests asking Eldridge and Gould about “punctuated equilibrium.” You can add to the list Sean Carroll (hox genes) or Franςois Jacob (modular biologies).

Unfortunately and surprisingly, there is no mention of Yoshiki Kuramoto’s work on oscillators and synchrony. It may be that “bursts” are an artifact of synchrony. That is, linked similar oscillators…no matter how many …eventually come into synchrony with each other. Thus, MIT students are oscillators stabilized by classes, mates, and beer and are similar to each other because of genetic propensities.

A further misfortune, there is no recognition similar genes find each other and make partnerships. That is, genetic similarities between individuals encourage friendships and marriages. For instance, the greater the heritability for neck size rather than wrist size means that we should expect husbands and wives to be more similar in the size of their necks than their wrists. We can also expect Rush Limbaugh to oscillate at a different frequency of his new bride, Kathryn Rogers …and the important factors for that stability are less those of age and more those of character and temperament.

Furthermore, nonshared environments are made by anything living, environments unique to the biological features of the specific maker – coral, spider, cricket, worm, or Arab beauty queen. Know what the organism assembled, read, or swore last week and you have a fair idea of the niches – whether physical or ideological – to be occupied next week.

Barabási also makes one of my favorite points, that our memory for the past is a prediction – and no more exact or certain than one that we make for the future. In 1514, was the hero, György Székely, a robber, mercenary, and political opportunist who really was put in charge of a Crusade to take Constantinople back from the Turks? Or, to hell with the crusade and a cardinal’s ambitions, did a robber, mercenary, and political opportunist attempt the overthrow of a repressive Hungarian nobility? Székely led his peasant army for three months and his revolution nearly succeeded. It did fail, however, and he was killed by torture, also in his busy year of 1514.

Székely, however, came to be remembered as a liberator two centuries later. A sculpture of his unique execution reminds modern visitors to the Hungarian National Gallery why it is important that we remember Székely when we face Erdoğan instead of Suleiman in our next crusade.

Bottom Lines
Buy it, read it, and enjoy the bursts and details, both in the stories and in the artwork but don’t forget Steven Strogatz or his icon, Yoshiki Kuramoto. You cannot have a “deep order” without also loving synchrony!

ReferencesBarabási, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.
Brody, James (2008) Rebellion: Physics to Personal Will. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.
Carroll, Sean (2004) Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. NY: Norton. Also: Carroll, Sean (2006) The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution. NY: Norton.
Eiseley, Loren(1979) Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists. New York: Harcourt.
Jacob, Franςois (1998) Of Flies, Mice, and Men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rushton, J. Philippe. (2005) Ethnic nationalism, evolutionary psychology, and Genetic Similarity Theory. Nations & Nationalism. 11(4), 489–507.
Strogatz, Steven (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.

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