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Is There a Physics of Society? January 10-12, 2008, Santa Fe NM

Organizers: Michelle Girvan (University of Maryland) and Aaron Clauset (Santa Fe Institute)

Friday, January 11, 2008

9:00 - 9:40 Luis Bettencourt (homepage)

Elements of a coarse-grained quantitative theory of Society: Physics perhaps, but like you’ve never seen it before

The answer to whether there is a "Physics of Society" depends largely on what we mean by Physics. Strictly speaking I will argue that the answer is no! I will argue that there is probably no parallel to most fundamental laws of physics, which describe the (deterministic) dynamics of the simplest units of a physical system such as mass, as in Newton's law, or fundamental forces and matter in modern theories of particle physics. People taken as the units of society display individual dynamics that are too complex to be categorized by any finite set of states, and their actions are always informed by past experience and by variable cognitive framing. Although some interesting general heuristics can be grasped in specific situations most individual behavior remains very hard to classify, quantify and predict.

On the other hand societies display much greater simplicity than the sum of their parts might have suggested. I will give a few examples from the study of innovation in science and technology, the dynamics of fashions and the development of cities. This suggests that a coarse grained theory of societies might exist, in very rough analogy to how thermodynamics stands for the average behavior in Statistical Physics. Recent findings from the study of innovation and economic and demographic growth however suggest that such a theory must be quite different from thermodynamics, in the sense that its dynamics may never reach equilibrium and the state space of a (human) society may indeed always grow, driven partly by endogenous mechanisms. In spite of these unfamiliar properties I will argue that some of the characteristics of these growth dynamics may be universal, and possibly quantifiable and predictable.