Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons From a New Science

I was in the airport (a fairly common hang out for me) waiting for a plane and I picked up a copy of the new book by Alex “Sandy” Pentland called “Social Physics”.  Sandy is the head of the MIT Human Dynamic and Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program and has been on the forefront of computer and communication sciences.  The new book is a great read on a new discipline emerging in studying idea flow and organization in new ways and treating the subject as a quantitative science.  Patterns of information exchange can be studied in new ways that lead to a greater understanding of how to incentivize productivity and optimize performance of different organizations. I highly recommend the book for those who think often about big data problems and anyone who is interested in how ideas move and are manifest in decision making across sectors.

There is a group in the business school that are studying network dynamics of collaboration at CSU and using similar thinking in their analysis of quantifying social interactions in new ways.  Steve Hayne and James Folkestad have catalogued all of the sponsored research projects as a basis to understand the collaborative dynamic network on CSU.  The analysis allows for a qualitative and quantitative view of the state of interdisciplinary research at CSU.  I don’t want to steal their thunder but I took away from it that we have seen a slight retraction of interdisciplinary collaborations (based on funded projects on campus) in the last five years, potentially a product of austere fiscal times.  Another observation on the network is the analysis of “cut ties” that are people who are integrating nodes of interdisciplinary research on campus.  There has been a reduction in cut ties over the same time period.

While early in the development, the field of social physics I believe has much to offer us on campus and I have encouraged Steve and James to forge on while we work on new ways to build interdisciplinary networks into our research practices and opportunities.  I had a chance to proffer this at the recent One Health Club Dinner this week, a new series launched to help move a new campus wide initiative forward.  I believe that understanding and facilitating the creation of a vibrant interdisciplinary network could be a key goal of the One Health Club Initiative.  This activity should be agnostic to the priorities that emerge within the initiative as they address “how we do it”, not just “what we do”.

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BRAINstorming: The Muse. March 4

We held a meeting recently in the Lory Student Center that brought together a group of interested scientists to talk about brain research at CSU. The recent anointment of neuroscience as a new CSU undergraduate degree, the increasing interest in federal agencies, industry, foundations in neuroscience (with the launch of a new BRAIN initiative at NIH, NSF, and DARPA) and its intersection with other disciplines was the inspiration for the meeting.

The mood in the room was quite energetic, enthusiastic and had an intellectual positive tension that harnessed and focused the discussion around the circle of chairs we had set up.  It looked and felt like a tribal council.  Engineers, chemists, biologists, sensor sciences, administrators, entrepreneurs, some mixed.  One spark flew from discussions linking protein folding, prions and amyloid proteins, imaging tools and electrophysiology and sensor devices.  There are aspects of biomolecular assembly (active multimeric oligomers) that are pervasive in determining biological activity of many of these species involved with brain health and acute (e.g. concussion) and chronic brain disease (e.g. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS).  Interdisciplinary research in this area will also support opportunities to engineer diagnostic and therapeutic strategies from basic discoveries.

Another tribal beat was around data management and analysis (a future predictive analytical core) and whether insights from predictive analytics in other applications such as climate and weather modeling and forecasting could be brought to the table.  An example was illuminated around topological data modeling (e.g. and other strategies and people including companies like Ayasdi, a recent Khosla venture) and other dimensionality reduction tools when the community increases the number of neurons or other measurements made at the brain cellular and tissue levels.

There was a lot of interest in exploring new ways to seed cross disciplinary efforts and one idea was to focus on post doctoral fellowships to support interdisciplinary collaborations.  Most of all there was an urgency to build the BRAINstorm tribe at CSU and our surrounding innovation community.  It is a great opportunity to build on some momentum in this area.  I am of course a big supporter of this area and hope I can bring an interest in exploiting interest in discovery and translation into engineering broadly.