Futurology gets a little more exact

Thursday, March 4th, 2004

Futurology gets a little more exact:

In the past few years, physicists have started applying their ideas to the social sciences in an attempt to figure out whether there exists a ‘physics of society’. At the same time, social and political scientists have begun to adopt some of the methods pioneered in physics to understand and predict the behaviour of large groups of people. Unlikely as it might sound, there are signs that aspects of social behaviour follow mathematical laws akin to those obeyed by insensate matter in the physical sciences.

Using math to predict the behavior of large group of people? Sounds like economics. Or psychohistory. (Asimov’s version of psychohistory, from his Foundation novels, not the study of the psychological motivations of historical events.)

Analyzing people as if they were particles makes the most sense when they are, in fact, behaving a lot like particles:

One of the social systems that shows the clearest signs of behaviour analogous to a collection of inanimate particles is traffic flow. That’s probably because our choices are particularly constrained on the road — in general, all we do is aim to go in a specific direction, in single file, at the speed of our choosing. But we will, on the whole, reduce this speed if necessary to avoid the risk of collision.

Physicists have devised models of traffic flow in which each vehicle is represented by a particle programmed to move according to these rules. They find that the resulting flow looks spookily realistic. It can seize up into the kind of “phantom jams” that seem to have no cause. And it can develop the recurring waves of stop-and-go congestion familiar to motorway drivers.

Some traffic physicists argue that traffic exists in three distinct states: free flow, congested flow and jams. These are analogous to the gas, liquid and solid states of matter, and one flow state seems to switch to another abruptly, like the sudden “phase transitions” of melting, freezing seen in matter. Understanding what triggers these transitions in traffic might lead to better road designs and traffic regulations.

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