Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Our life is not a movie or maybe

Posted by Arjendu on June 12, 2008

This is mostly to serve as a pointer to an essay by Philip Ball about an article in Nature about human mobility patterns. Ball quotes John Stuart Mill:

“Events which in their own nature appear most capricious and uncertain and which in any individual case no attainable degree of knowledge would enable us to foresee, occur, when considerable numbers are taken into account, with a degree of regularity approaching to mathematical.”

And takes it from there. It’s one of the consistent themes running through my intellectual life, and this blog, of course: That statistical thinking helps make sense of complicated confusing contingent phenomena. I’ve been fascinated by that idea since I was a kid. I remember heated discussions with my father after reading Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ trilogy about the possibility of ‘predicting’ human social futures (or psychohistory, a la Hari Seldon) — which he put down to my even-then-obvious bias towards ‘scientism‘. I get a great deal of satisfaction, even now, from seeing patterns at the macroscopic level arising from averaging over microscopic idiosyncrasies.

When we use the term ‘statistical’, we do not mean that everything is random or that it all relaxes to a Bell curve. The probability distributions that emerge when complicated nonlinear interactions and dynamics are at play in non-equilibrium phenomena can be heavily influenced by a few events and can lead to extremely counter-intuitive phenomena. Consider Levy flights, for example — these show up not only in particle dynamics in Harry Swinney’s lab, on Wall Street, but also form the basis of extremely effective atomic cooling techniques.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser. With all due respect to the spirit of that statement, the universe is made of stories, by atoms, about atoms. And atoms behave statistically.


One Response to “Our life is not a movie or maybe”

  1. Ed said

    In order to balance the arguments a little, may I recommend “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb.

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