2013 Summer Meeting and Lecture: Report

Ponytails, Micro-organisms and Economics, a Report from the IOP Complexity and Nonlinear Physics Group Summer Meeting.

With the sun shining and the lawns full of undergrads sleeping after their exams, St Hilda’s College, Oxford was an idyllic setting for the summer meeting this year.  We decided to open up the programme to members to see what emerged, and the speakers did not disappoint.

Prof. Robin Ball opened proceedings with his insights into the physics of hair, which are worthy of much more than his Ig Nobel prize.  The use of hair in ancient artillery and the resonance of ponytails were brought together with some impressive modelling.

Dmitri (Mitya) Pushkin (University of Oxford) followed with an engaging talk on the ubiquitous stirring of microorganisms in water, air, soil and inside the human body, opening our eyes to a world most of us know nothing about and the physics that governs it.

The mix of deep physics and real life application continued as Philip Clemson (Lancaster University) described a new class of oscillatory systems which have stable amplitudes and varying frequencies but are able to generate complex dynamics.  Although there are many applications for such understanding, of particular interest was the application to the cardiorespiratory system, and how such systems come into play as a deep breath puts our breathing out of phase with heart beat.

We were then transported back into the microscopic world by Fred Farrell (University of Edinburgh) who described bacteria biofilms in all their disconcerting glory.  It was amazing to see within Fred’s models how complex forms emerge from collective behaviour, such as channels to provide nutrition.

Returning to the human scale, Jean Boulton (University of Bath) took a constructively critical view of how ideas from complexity science can be taken as metaphors or used to model social situations, and how these are related to an ontological position that allows us to explore the social world.  As well as drawing on the history of such approaches, Jean demonstrated the lessons that can be applied to organisations and socio-political situations.

After a well-earned cup of tea, John Fry (Sheffield University) kicked off a series of talks considering the applications of complexity and nonlinear science in economics.  John developed a fascinating account of bubbles and anti-bubbles in the econophysics through a sophisticated model of their behaviour, providing insight from the rapidly developing field of complexity physics.

Simon Roberts (Arup) then demonstrated a model that follows GDP through the economy in analogy to energy flow.  Not only is the model visually pleasing, but it pulls off that rare trick of making a complex process comprehensible and furthermore serves as a highly useful tool for understanding and comparing economies, as well as generating new hypotheses.

With the recent focus on better understanding economic systems, models like those presented by Aleksandra Aloric (King’s College London) are invaluable.  Aleksandra showed how traders faced with multiple markets might segregate beyond a critical threshold, and thus provided a dynamical explanation of how market positions may develop and become entrenched, drawing on the example of low-cost versus prestige airlines.

With our minds buzzing we spent some time conversing and drinking wine in the sunshine and enjoying the rare summer afternoon, before joining with additional guests for the evening event.

Mark Buchanan draws on a background in physics and journalism to present a fascinating account of the history and state of econophysics in his latest book “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics”.  At the meeting he linked together a deep understanding of the topic with a thread of critique that promoted both understanding and thought and left us wanting to know more (I went straight to buy the book!).

Prof. Doyne Farmer, who featured in Mark’s account, then gave a thrilling exposition of what needs to be overcome in order to move economics from the misguided models of the past to the reliable models that physics can provide.  Primarily, these recognise the dynamics of economic phenomena and provide comprehension of markets through phase diagrams and other techniques.  Doyne is certainly at the forefront of this exciting new field and he answered questions from the audience both knowledgably and directly, highlighting the ways forward in developing a better understanding of the economies that affect us all.

The only disappointment of the day was that we didn’t have more time for discussion but the breadth of topics and skill of the presenters left us all with heads full of ideas and questions and notepaper full of references and contacts.  In that sense the meeting was a success.

If you want to suggest future events, the committee are always glad to hear from members about how we can help further complexity and nonlinear physics.  Please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Mark Hardman

(Please accept my apologies for any misrepresentations above, these are my interpretations only!)