How physics and mathematics are helping us understand society

New research, published in Frontiers in Physics, brings together social sciences and computational physics to take a look at our society and how it works.


New research, published in Frontiers in Physics, brings together social sciences and computational physics to take a look at our society and how it works.

— By Daisy Hessenberger 

How does a rumor spread? What affects how we behave both individually and as a group? What is the impact of how we communicate?

Our society and how we interact is changing at a staggering pace, most notably with the explosion of digital communications technology and the resulting big data. In this day and age, where the online behavior of individuals has huge consequences on economics, policy and even elections, it is more important than ever to understand how we, as a species, function and communicate. With more and more data being collected on who we are and what we do, scientists are now turning to physics to answer some of the most pertinent questions.


“Social Media: an illustration of overstimating the relevance of social media to social events from XKCD. Available online at (Accessed June 16, 2016)”[1]

Using physics to model and understand ourselves is not new; the fields of econophysics and sociophysics have been around for the last few decades answering questions about our financial system and social behaviour respectively. However, the dawn of the Internet of Things and increased use of mobile technologies meant that a different approach was needed – and so we have seen the emergence of Computational Social Science (CSS).

Participate in next year’s Spotlight Award: Submit your Research Topic idea

“We are nowadays at a crossroads, at which different approaches converge,” write Javier Borge-Holthoefer, Yamir Moreno, and Taha Yasseri in their Editorial article for a Research Topic on this rapidly growing new field.

CSS is an approach to modelling human behaviour, predicting and testing theories. Each new research line starts by using a big chunk of data, this big data can vary from the times that we send texts or what words we use when we write reviews online. Where before, the social sciences often relied on the analysis of small datasets from questionnaires and interviews, a similar approach can now be taken to analyse the data generated by millions of people. “We live in a digital world and understanding our societies and our social behaviour is a big challenge,” says Yasseri.

Cover Image  shows the emotional expression in the trust network of a product reviews community

The cover Image of the free eBook on CSS shows the emotional expression in the trust network of a product reviews community. Researchers found that the users in a central core of the network are more emotional than the rest.

From Twitter to politics, the question is now, how will this new field develop and can we use it to address some of the biggest challenges in our world? “This ‘work-in-progress’ spirit is reflected as well in this volume,” write Topic Editors. “[T]he call was launched in late 2014 and 10 articles were eventually accepted and published, including reviews—a look behind—, one methods paper, and six original contributions—a look ahead—introducing a broad range of research, from models with a strong analytical flavour to data-driven problems.”

Of course, working in a new field has its pitfalls, and at any crossroads you hope to find signs pointing out the way. This timely collection of peer-reviewed open-access articles, “At the Crossroads: Lessons and Challenges in Computational Social Science”, not just provides examples of CSS but also aims to outline good practice in this field. In “P-Values: Misunderstood and Misused”, authors Bertie Vidgen and Dr. Taha Yasseri from the Oxford Internet Institute “call for a more careful use of statistical tests and show [a] few directions for improvement.”

The Research topic addresses the theoretical but also the emerging necessity of physicists to be prepared to address the ethics and unique challenges that comes with working with humans. For example, subjects need not be passive, and in citizen science experiments physicists will have to take a whole new set of methodological guidelines into account.

While these are challenges that are faced by many new fields, the interdisciplinary nature of CSS makes it especially difficult to peer review and share new developments. “Frontiers’ excellent infrastructure and open philosophy has made it a natural venue for my research”, writes Yassari. His co-Topic-Editor, Prof Javier Borge-Holthoefer believes “Science, and especially interdisciplinary research, can only advance if its activity is placed in the public agora, where ideas, methods, and results can be reproduced, discussed, and ultimately debunked for improvement.”

Borge-Holtehoefer, Moreno and Yasseri are finalists of the Frontiers Spotlight Award, where the winners are granted with US$100,000 to host their own conference themed around their Research Topic.

Take a look at the other finalists here.

[1] A Biased Review of Biases in Twitter Studies on Political Collective Action

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