Physics, by at least one definition, is the science of matter and energy and their interactions. So nobody should be surprised when that particular science strays into social analysis, as well. One particularly cool application of this physics crossover is this effort to model social interactions based on laws of the physical world.
The physicists crafted a model of particle interaction, and compared it to empirical data taken from a survey of more than 90,000 U.S. students regarding friendships. They found that the patterns of behavior matched quite well — social clustering, the way friendships evolve over time, the shortest path length in a large group, and some features related to group structure. Says one of the scientists:
”We consider a system of mobile agents (students), which at the beginning have no acquaintances; by moving in a continuous space they collide with each other, forming their friendships.”
After a collision, a particle moves in a different direction with an updated velocity, just as how an individual’s chance of meeting a new person depends on their most recent acquaintances.
While abstract and academic, the model does have practical implications for those who gain from understanding social dynamics (are you listening, cultural managers?):
By knowing the shortest path, communicators can optimize the information flow and improve productivity in a business. With the ability to determine hot hubs or holes in a community, business managers can identify leaders or points that require an organizational change.
Beyond the strategic benefits, the model reinforces something we already know: a rich social network is the result of a large number of people bumping into each other. If we can add energy to that process [insert ”cultural or creative experience” here] we can influence the shape and flow of our communities in rather dramatic ways.