The Networks of Life

Science is always in search of the fundamental truths that can explain the different phenomena that form our universe. This search for the fundamental base truths is no more emphasized than in the field of Mathematics and Physics, where mathematicians and physicists are on a path to quantify, explain, and analyze the rules that guide the universe. As a species, humans are quite arrogant when it comes to our own knowledge and capabilities as we’ve been the “dominant” intellectual species for a very long time. With the framework of Newtonian Physics, we came to understand the world as a deterministic set of interactions that could be computed if only we had the computational power to do so. This was the realm of the perfect information game, where every system was the sum of its parts. Scientists would look at one interaction and how this would cascade into a link of interactions that were guided Newton’s 3 Laws.

However, with the benefit of centuries of practice and research, we slowly came to understand that the world was not deterministic; that there were many phenomena that could not simply be explained away by the sum of its parts. We started learning more about the weird science and rules that govern the quantum world, and recently, we’ve been introduced to the emergent properties that come about from complexity. As Stephen Hawking said, this century is the century of complexity. It’s very interesting that the applications of graph theory and network science came from a mapping of the social networks that bond us as humans together. That one of the most influential and potentially impactful concepts, that touches on all the scientific fields from biology to physics, was discovered in a realm that we as humans live in day in and day out is quite amazing. Little did we know that even during the time of Newton, the networks that we were forming were already in play. These networks formed our experience as humans and created a new whole that were definitely larger than the sum of its parts, all the while we were blissfully thinking that we had discovered the absolute fundamental truths of the world in Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion.

Perhaps the most fascinating about the discovery of networks and complex systems (aside from me realizing that Duncan Watts is really young), is just how wide-reaching this concept is. The concept of networks and complex systems doesn’t just work in the field of physics and mathematics, but encompasses almost all the fields of scientific research such as sociology, biology, chemistry, genetics, and everything under (and beyond) the sun. While the previous generations had Newtonian physics as a framework that impacted and advanced all the sciences, our generation has complexity science that is starting to gain traction and has started to impact all fields in scientific research. In the same way that Newton touched upon something fundamental about the “rules” that governed the natural world, complexity science seems to be touching upon something fundamental about how the interactions of everything in the universe can be framed and explained by complex networks.

The fact that complexity science isn’t limited to a field encourages inter-disciplinary approaches to theorizing and figuring out how these networks can be applied. In this sense, the truths and rules that are used in complexity science are not just limited, but are blanket truths that can be applied to many fields. This universality of the application multiplies the impact of the field exponentially, and the inter-disciplinary nature of the field means faster and more distributed developments as people from different backgrounds can come together and create something larger than the sum of its parts. This is quite poetic, if you ask me. The fact that complex systems, in it of itself, can also encourage a complex system of scientists and fields of science to come together to build something larger than itself, which then builds complex systems just sounds right. This, to me, speaks to the very nature of complex systems: that the universality of this field applies to everything in the universe and in whatever scale that we choose to look at. The fact that the truths of complex systems is so universal makes it seem like the networks of complex systems underpins the very fabric of life as we know it.

This essay was a requirement under the Network Science class where they were asked to watch Connected: The Power of Six Degrees directed by Annamaria Talas and react to it. This essay has been published with permission from the author, one of my MSDS students. - Prof. E