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The secret order of disorder

Human society can be analyzed and predicted using math, according to some good news from scientists. This introduces a completely new way of understanding social problems and predicting the future structure of society and may be a boon to intellectuals, policy experts and investors alike.

Young children love cutting and folding paper to make symmetrical snowflakes, joining seemingly random dots to make pictures and otherwise imposing order on their world. Adults are not very different. They seek a sense of structure too.

Grown-ups who enjoyed math or physics in high school or college may wish that human society were governed by laws that corresponded with a handy equation, like the Pythagorean theorem. It would make analysis and prediction much simpler.

A leading exponent of the idea that there are hidden but useful mathematical patterns in the world is Geoffrey West, physicist and former president of New Mexico’s Santa Fe Institute. The institute is dedicated to using a range of different disciplines to study the principles of complex systems, including biological and social systems.

Professor West points out that the amount of energy that different creatures require tends to increase by about 75% for any doubling in its size. He devised a chart showing that this rule applies to a veritable menagerie of living beings, including mice, hens, horses, elephants and people.

This is striking enough, but Professor West has gone one step further by working out similar simple mathematical patterns for cities. He finds that if one city is twice as large as another, it needs about 15% less infrastructure per 1000 people. In context, that is 15% fewer gas stations. But many other things increase by around 15% per person, including crime, creativity (as measured by patents) and income.

... if one city is twice as large as another, it needs about 15% less infrastructure per 1000 people.

Professor West and his colleagues are not the first people to find unexpected mathematical patterns in society.

In 1948, English physicist and meteorologist Lewis F. Richardson published the “Variation of the Frequency of Fatal Quarrels with Magnitude.” Motivated by his desire as a Quaker to prevent violence by understanding its patterns, he looked at all wars between 1820 and 1945.

Richardson found that for each ten-fold increase in the severity of a war, as measured by the number of deaths, the frequency of war decreased by somewhat less than a factor of three. Roughly speaking, wars with about 10,000 deaths occurred about one-third as often as wars with a thousand deaths.

Two geologists at Cornell University, D.C. Roberts and Donald Turcotte found similar mathematical patterns for forest fires. They drew parallels between the two phenomena: after the initial ignition, both wars and forest fires have a tendency to stop gradually, but a small number manage to spread by finding the fuel to keep going. For a forest fire, this fuel comes from trees. For a war, it might come from unstable countries bordering the original conflict.

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” Carl Jung, a famous Swiss psychiatrist, wrote in 1959. It seems discovering the secret order and simplicity of the world could well be a rewarding endeavor.

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