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New center focuses on complex systems

Statistics and calculus help us understand our world in important ways, but scientists need new tools to make sense of increasingly complex and interconnected networks. That was the central theme Oct. 22 as Binghamton celebrated the launch of the Center for Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems.

“Increasingly we have global transportation, global communication … and that means we have things that propagate across the world,” Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, told dozens of faculty, students and administrators who gathered for the event. The study of complex systems can reveal trends, help forecast and avert crises and identify connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena.

The Center for Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems, or CoCo, claims faculty participants from about 15 departments on campus. The researchers study networks ranging from the stock market to the brain, using mathematical modeling to understand and predict their behavior.

“If we want to address the most pressing challenges of our society, we need to bring people of different disciplines together,” said Donald Nieman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “CoCo fits really wonderfully into this paradigm.”

Hiroki Sayama, CoCo director, is an associate professor in Binghamton’s department of systems science and industrial engineering. He’s also the author of a new Open SUNY textbook titled “Introduction to the Modeling and Analysis of Complex Systems.”

At Binghamton, CoCo, which began as an informal group in 2007, has held a seminar series for years. It was formally recognized as an Organized Research Center this summer. Sayama said the researchers have established three key research thrusts:

CoCo also led the establishment of an advanced graduate certificate program in complex systems science and engineering at Binghamton.

Bar-Yam’s talk, which touched on topics such as Ebola and the Arab Spring, included illustrations of how complex systems science can help world leaders, non-government organizations and public health officials anticipate crises. He drew connections between American policies on corn ethanol and global food prices, then used graphs to show the link between those food prices and civil unrest worldwide.

As he shifted his focus to ebola, Bar-Yam noted that pathogen evolution has been disrupted by our global transportation networks. In the past, a virus that was overly aggressive — essentially, one that killed people too quickly — would eventually die out for lack of victims. Now, an aggressive pathogen can “succeed” by jumping to a new location. Statistical models, he argued, aren’t up to the task of predicting these jumps. Indeed, Bar-Yam said, people may be blind to the unreasonable risk of a virus like ebola because of their reliance on statistics.

Bar-Yam’s lecture wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. He also shared some anecdotes about a project involving the use of Twitter to analyze people’s locations and moods in various New York City neighborhoods. “We discovered to our surprise that people in Central Park are happier,” he said, to loud laughter from the audience.

CoCo’s seminar series continues throughout the semester. For details on upcoming lectures and information about the center’s work, visit http://coco.binghamton.edu [1].

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