Crunching Complexity

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An interdisciplinary group at UM employs complexity science to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems, from armed conflict to economic instability.

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UM physicist Neil Johnson.

Tracking Global Trends
Sporting slacks, shirt, and tie, Cambridge- and Harvard-educated physicist Neil Johnson looks somewhat out of place among soldiers who have seen battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, during a recent presentation at Homestead Air Force Reserve Base, he commanded their rapt attention. Using advanced computer simulations and mathematical models, Johnson, a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated scholar, seeks to help armies predict attacks by analyzing collective behavior observed in human conflict scenarios.

Applying complexity science to Wall Street, Johnson, a physics professor at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, and fellow researchers are studying how the world’s financial community responds to rumors or news events.

“Everyone is connected to everyone else via an intricate web,” he says. “They’re all hungry for information and trying to make sense of what is happening in the world to guess how everyone else is likely to react.” That, he says, could lead to significant fluctuations in world financial markets. Working with the world’s largest banking group, HSBC, Johnson is trying to develop an indicator that would alert traders to potential adverse events.

An Array of Applications
Johnson’s research of complex systems has helped him forge collaborations with experts from a variety of fields. At UM, he is collaborating with Sylvester researchers on a study of tumor growth and acceleration, and with epidemiologists and math ecologists, he’s figuring out how rapidly infections can spread to different communities.

Johnson notes that complexity science is a growing focus for his discipline: “It always struck me that this was an area in which physics could move and would probably be able to say something at least different and hopefully interesting and new.” Mission accomplished.

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