Synopsis: Explosive innovation

A microscopic model of innovation tells us how human progress occurs in fits and starts.
Synopsis figure
Credit: Sami Mitra

Innovation and discovery are perhaps social phenomena, but that has not kept physical scientists from studying them. Human progress often appears to come out of nowhere, but the causative factors are anything but isolated. One thing leads to another; discoveries create conditions that lead to more discoveries, albeit in varying degrees.

Innovations, of course, occur in more general settings as well; the theory of punctuated equilibrium tells us that evolution of all species happens in fits and starts. Physicists have studied such bursts of change with mean-field methods, which led to the understanding that a phase transition separates systems showing intense activity from those where activity always dies out.

In their paper in Physical Review Letters, Vishal Sood of the Niels Bohr Institute, Denmark, Amer Shreim, Peter Grassberger, and Maya Paczuski at the University of Calgary, Canada, and Myléne Mathieu at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France, take us a step further with the help of a microscopic model of innovation that builds on earlier so-called branching process schemes. Their particular model—the interacting branching process—indicates, in contrast to earlier studies, that a pair of inventions (parents) is needed to generate an “offspring” innovation. Rather than associating periods of high innovation with a phase transition, the model tells us that fluctuations can lead to a “superexplosive” burst after a long, quiescent bottleneck. How closely this explains explosive sociological or historical changes is anyone’s guess, but it is tempting to think that there might be an explanation in physics of how we emerged from the Dark Ages into Renaissance, or why the World Wide Web arrived with breakneck speed. – Sami Mitra


Features

More Features »

Announcements

More Announcements »

Subject Areas

Interdisciplinary Physics

Previous Synopsis

Nuclear Physics

Wishing isomers a long life

Read More »

Next Synopsis

Nonlinear Dynamics

Branching out

Read More »

Related Articles

Synopsis: Friction Means Life or Death for Ants
Soft Matter

Synopsis: Friction Means Life or Death for Ants

Experiments show that the mass of an object determines whether it slides down a sandy slope, which may explain why insect predators called antlions can trap ants in sand pits. Read More »

Viewpoint: Language Boundaries Driven by Surface Tension
Interdisciplinary Physics

Viewpoint: Language Boundaries Driven by Surface Tension

A new model of language evolution assumes that changes in the spatial boundaries between dialects are controlled by a surface tension effect. Read More »

Synopsis: Pinpointing Ebbs and Flows of Commuter Traffic
Interdisciplinary Physics

Synopsis: Pinpointing Ebbs and Flows of Commuter Traffic

Vulnerabilities in a city’s public transport system are identified through a network analysis that accounts for the number of passengers and vehicles at any given time. Read More »

More Articles