by Albert-László Barabási
New York: Plume, 2003
ISBN 0 452 28439 2
by Steven Strogatz
New York: Theia, 2003
ISBN 0 7868 8721 4
Review by Sarah Sheard
These two books describe the fast-evolving science of complexity and
how the concept of
small world networks is reshaping our
understanding of a structure that underlies most of the complex systems
we work with today. Although they are intended as popular books rather
than as scientific treatises, there is plenty in them to tickle the
technical fancies of systems engineers.
Linked is subtitled
everything is connected to everything else and what it means for
business, science, and everyday life. Written originally in 2002, it
was updated slightly in 2003. Linked
is a compendium of fifteen stories, one per chapter. An introduction
sets the stage with a strange variety of apparently different
vignettes, establishing the challenge that the rest of the book will
show how they relate to each other.
Interestingly, each of the following chapters begins in an entirely different place than the last chapter ended. One chapter finishes with a discussion of random networks, for example, and the next chapter starts with the invention of Hungarian literary caricature. In a sense, the whole book feels like a necklace being strung… for each chapter a new bead is brought out from some remote corner of the world, examined, and eventually strung together with the beads from previous chapters.
Many people have heard of
six degrees of separation: the idea that
you are separated by only six different relationships from anyone
anywhere in the world. This concept is addressed early on in Linked,
and implications based on it can grow throughout the book. This is one
strength of Linked compared to other books of the genre.
(Note, however, that Strogatz, the author of Sync, is one
of the developers of the
six degrees so it is natural that Sync
takes some time to lead up to it… it is also true that Strogatz's explanation
has a more immediate and involved feel to it.)
Despite having read many other complexity books, I did not find Linked to be light reading. I could imagine each chapter being a week's course of study in a graduate class in which significant study would be required to understand each week's material. Even in my casual reading, I found myself putting considerable study into each chapter. Such study was very rewarding because the implications are profound.
Other topics addressed in Linked
with which INSIGHT readers may be familiar include the 80/20 rule (80%
of your business, for example, comes from 20% of your customers), Power
laws and scale-free networks and how the
web of life is indeed a
network in the same sense as the internet or a social network. Two
examples of the interesting explanations that arise in the course of
these topics are how the
Bose Einstein condensates of quantum physics
are related to Microsoft's domination of the operating system business
and why the same structure that allows you to reach any site on the
internet within about 18 clicks also sets up the internet as an easy
target for malicious hacking.
Linked is recommended as a first book for an engineer who is curious about complexity theory and networks, who wants a serious but broad overview without required mathematical formulas.
Sync, by Steven
Strogatz, is subtitled,
How Order Emerges From Chaos in the Universe,
Nature, and Daily Life. Discover magazine dubbed this book
of 2003 with the following brief review:
Strogatz explores dozens of strange synchronous phenomena, from hands clapping in unison to the rhythmic flashing of fireflies to laser beams produced by trillions of atoms emitting light waves in phase at the same frequency. In the process, he shows that there is a method even in the madness of a chaotic universe.
Sync is written in a more immediate and personal style than Linked. Reading Linked, you feel Barabási trying to teach you. Reading Sync, you feel like you're in the lab with Strogatz, trying to figure out what this new science is all about. My favorite chapter in the whole book is Chapter 3, which discusses the experiments done on the human sleep cycle. I now understand the problems my teenagers are having with getting a good night's sleep and getting up early in the morning for school. My favorite anecdote in the book is when Strogatz was chatting with actor Alan Alda in the MIT cafeteria when a student recognized… no, I'll leave the rest of the story for you to discover.
Like Linked, however, all
the chapters lead toward a unified story. This story has a more
immediate and "in progress" feel to it… I finished the book thinking
I want to help study that! as opposed to finishing Linked
Wow, that's a cool science.
Sync has three sections that are further divided into
chapters (compared to the flat fifteen
links in Linked).
Living Sync discusses fireflies, brain waves, and sleep, and
Discovering Sync moves from pendulums to solar systems to
superconductivity and ends with resonances in bridges.
Sync, which occupies nearly half the book, first examines the
implications of nonlinearity and those systems that are truly
unpredictable in the long term due to chaotic dynamics. It is in this
third section that one feels one is riding alongside Dr. Strogatz as he
discovers chaos and complexity in his own journey in graduate school
and beyond. The engineer can truly enjoy trying to comprehend all the
phenomena explained intuitively (non-mathematically) by a brilliant MIT
Both books are interesting diversions from a standard systems engineering day's work. Neither is likely to help you figure out how to cross three action items off today's to-do list. However, either will help you understand the world you work in, from the Microsoft versus Google wars to the genesis of an insight, and thus provide an excellent context for your continued, more detailed learning about the systems of systems issues you will need to address in the decades to come.
Reviewed by Sarah Sheard
Principal, Third Millennium Systems LLC