The Social Atom: Physics and Human Affairs


Date Thursday June 7th 2007
Time 4:00-5:00pm
Venue George E. Pake Auditorium

PARC Forum

What if someone told you that the way to understanding human behavior was through physics, rather than psychology? Suggesting that we can apply the laws of physics to humanity is sometimes a frightening thought. I take on the reasoning of major economic theory, and then use the law of physics and the cutting-edge work of some of the world’s most creative scientists to explain how by looking at humans as social atoms (and computer modeling now enables us to do this, we are much more likely to be able to predict and understand our own behavior.

Why are some bars crowded one week and empty the next? What’s the logic behind the New York Stock Exchange, and other financial markets, and how do streams of thinking feed on themselves to create rallies and crashes that no one ever intended? What makes ethnic violence break out?

Using these and other examples, I will show that our collective behavior follows mathematical patterns of surprising precision. But this way of thinking does not demean or devalue human life, it merely accepts that mathematics and mechanics of the ordinary world apply to us as much as to anything else. “Looking at patterns, not people” – in the way that physicists observe atoms-offers us a basic, yet revolutionary way to understand the ways in which we all live together, and why sometimes it works so well, and why sometimes so badly.


Mark Buchanan is a theoretical physicist and associate editor at Complexus, a journal of bio-complexity. He was formerly an editor at Nature and New Scientist, and is the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles in the U.S. and U.K. He writes a monthly column for Nature Physics, and - over the past month - has been a guest columnist for the New York Times.

Dr Buchanan is a European Commission expert in the area of the "complexity sciences," and the author of two prize-nominated books, Ubiquity: The Science of History and Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks. His third book, The Social Atom, is publishing on June 5, 2007, and explores how ideas and concepts from the physical sciences can help us understand human affairs. He lives in Cambridgeshire, England.

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