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The Universal Architecture of Complex Systems

Exploring Network Science

By Myke & AmyPublished 12 months ago 4 min read
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The Universal Architecture of Complex Systems

We find ourselves in an extraordinary era where data accompanies nearly every aspect of our lives. This holds true not only for our human experiences but also for the intricate fabric of our biological and universal existence. As we deepen our understanding of the world, we uncover its inherent complexity—a web of intricate systems at play. From the intricate genetic and molecular networks governing our biological existence to the multifaceted interactions within society, it becomes evident that our world is far from a mere aggregation of individuals.

Society cannot be reduced to a mere phone book. What truly propels society is the intricate interplay between its members. However, the question that arises is: How can we comprehend this complexity? To unravel the secrets of a complex system, the first step is to map out its underlying architecture and network. We are fortunate to possess an abundance of data encompassing various facets of life, creating a unique laboratory for scientists to fathom the inner workings of our world.

Graph theory, an area of study among mathematicians, has gained significant prominence. As a Hungarian, I must highlight the contributions made by the Hungarian School of Mathematics, spearheaded by Paul Erdős and Alfred Rényi, who delved into the realm of random graphs. Between the years of 1959 and '60, they published eight groundbreaking papers, laying the foundation for the "theory of random graphs."

The duo examined intricate networks surrounding us and concluded that although we are clueless about how these networks are interconnected, they bear a striking resemblance to random structures. Their model was elegantly simple: Take a pair of nodes and roll the dice. If the dice shows a six, connect the nodes. If not, move on to another pair. This concept birthed what we now refer to as a "random network model." From a physicist's standpoint, randomness does not equate to unpredictability; rather, it exhibits a unique form of predictability. Erdős and Rényi proved that in a random network, the average prevails.

Allow me to provide an example: Sociologists assert that the average person knows approximately a thousand individuals on a first-name basis. In a random society, the most popular individual—the one with the most friends—would have around 1,150 friends. Conversely, the least popular person would have around 850 friends. This distribution follows a Poisson distribution, characterized by a sharp peak around the average that rapidly diminishes.

However, this seemingly nonsensical observation indicates a flaw in the random network model. It is not that the model itself is incorrect; rather, it fails to capture reality, the intricate formation of networks. After years of studying networks, I came to the realization that I needed real data to gain insights into actual networks.

The opportunity to study real networks presented itself with the advent of the World Wide Web. As the name suggests, the web is essentially a network—its nodes are web pages, and its links are URLs that we click to navigate between pages. This was around 1998, approximately six to seven years after the inception of the World Wide Web.

Initially, the web was relatively small, comprising just a few hundred million pages. We embarked on the task of mapping it out, marking the dawn of what we now refer to as "network science." Once we delved deeper into the structure of the World Wide Web, we discovered that the degree distribution—the number of links per node—did not follow the Poisson distribution observed in random networks.

Instead, it adhered to a Power Law distribution. We christened these networks "scale-free networks." In such networks, averages hold no intrinsic meaning—they lack a fixed scale. Every possibility is viable; they are truly scale-free. Most real networks do not arise from connecting preexisting nodes; instead, they grow organically, starting with a single node and expanding gradually. Consider the World Wide Web: In 1991, it consisted of just one solitary web page.

How did we reach the trillion-plus pages we have today? A new webpage was created and linked to the initial page, followed by additional pages linking to existing ones. Each time a webpage was added and connected to others, new nodes were incorporated into the World Wide Web. The network evolved and grew, forming one node at a time.

Networks are not static entities with a fixed number of nodes that need to be interconnected; they are dynamic and continually evolving. They expand through growth. Sometimes it takes decades, such as the World Wide Web's 20-year journey to its current size, or even billions of years, like the subcellular networks that have acquired their current complexity over four billion years.

In the context of the World Wide Web, it became apparent that connections were not random. Instead, we connected to what we knew. We linked to Google, Facebook, and other major webpages that were familiar to us. We gravitated toward the more connected pages, exhibiting a bias in our connection patterns. We formalized this observation through the concept of "preferential attachment." When we combined growth with preferential attachment, the power laws emerged naturally from the model. Suddenly, hubs emerged, and we witnessed the same statistical characteristics and architecture observed in the World Wide Web.

We extended our investigations to encompass other domains, such as metabolic networks within cells, protein interactions, and even the intricate connections among actors in Hollywood. In all these systems, we observed scale-free networks, a departure from randomness, and the emergence of hubs. This realization led us to conclude that complex systems across various domains follow a universal architecture.

It is important to note that network science does not provide the definitive answer to all scientific inquiries. However, it serves as an indispensable path if we seek to comprehend the intricacies of complex systems arising from the interactions of numerous components. Presently, we do not possess separate theories for social networks, biological networks, and the World Wide Web. Instead, we embrace network science, a unifying framework that encapsulates them all.

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Myke & Amy

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