Friday, December 7, 2012

Is It Networks All the Way Down?

Quick: What do the brain, the Internet, and the universe have in common?

The chemist in me wants to say that electrons are very important to each, just at different scales, but that's not really a unique relationship. Rather, there may be a deep commonality among them, in that they can all be described with the same laws of network structure. This is the conclusion of a paper titled "Network Cosmology" out of the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), based at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego.

It's almost funny to see how much science bloggers have to bend over backwards to point out that THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE UNIVERSE IS A BRAIN. Please, please don't think that. It's not, nor is it a computer -- at least, if it is, I doubt we would be able to understand that it is anyway.

What it does mean is that when you graph out how these three complex networks are organized, that there are structural similarities at a surprisingly deep level. The physical forces organize the universe; the demands of life organize the brain; the demands of information flow organize the Internet. There must be structures and laws that work well for network organization, and it's very possible we haven't found the deepest, best formulations of those laws yet.

I'm fascinated by a quick observation near the end of the paper that this may have something to do with dark energy, which structures the universe. Does that mean that dark energy is a manifestion of this organization in some way? But I'm way over my head here so I'll leave that to the physicists.

One of the most beautiful things in science is the ability to see the same ordered patterns (fractals?) at multiple levels, such that the patterns fit together simply and satisfyingly. This "Network Cosmology" fits the brain, the Internet, and the universe together just so, like a major chord of three notes, and this paper feels like a major chord to me at first glance.

Now let's let wide peer review continue to do its job and see if it lasts the test of time, or if it's just a one-hit wonder.

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