In January, this freelancer’s mind turns to thoughts of networking, marketing and generally making new (hopefully productive, dare I say lucrative) contacts. I’ve been thinking about networks in a variety of contexts, whether it’s been family, friends, social networks, and the ways interactions between people and within systems ping-pong chaotically, but in ways that mathematics can clarify.
In addition, I’ve been working on a story over the last several weeks or so that deals with systems biology– a scientific approach that allows scientists to look at a biological system as a whole rather than the sum of its parts. Instead of isolating how one component of a machine interacts with another one, researchers use math to look at multiple interactions and scenarios and begin to tease out larger questions of complex systems. It’s an old idea that biology researchers have revisited in earnest over the last several years, with the data that overflows in the Era of Omics (genomics, proteomics, epigenomics, etc, etc).
But today I’m really thinking about networks of people and how our pings off each other shoot us into different directions, heighten (or dampen) our creativity, and ultimately impact our mood and even overall paths in life.
Indeed, it is becoming clear that a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill-health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, says Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has pioneered much of the new work.
This sort of social feedback is mostly good, note these scientists. But though I know I’ve been buoyed by friends who knew how to pick me up when I was down, I also remember the times when a toxic environment or person trampled on both my mood and productivity. My own (purely anecdotal) experience has been peppered with both fertile, creative environments with supportive colleagues and workplaces that verged on septic.
It’s an interesting time for journalists in that regard. I talked to one award-winning newspaper reporter a few months ago who described his work environment as gloomy beyond belief– people were hanging on, doing their jobs, and waiting for the layoff axe to drop all at the same time. In recent weeks, as magazines have halted production and newspapers have declared bankruptcy, I’ve definitely kept a lookout for colleagues with a positive outlook, just for sanity’s sake– my detox method of choice in a crazy economic environment.
But it looks like scientists may have more than social networks to worry about. What happens when the central star of a highly functional network is snuffed out unexpectedly and prematurely? Some MIT and Columbia University economists examined this question, looking at the impact of the premature death of a biomedical scientific superstar on the collaborators and colleagues that orbited her or (mostly) his influence. Apparently if it’s unexpected, that death can diminish their both the productivity and the quality of their publications of their surviving co-authors for years, if not their entire career. It’s not bereavement or even social connections, the researchers write in the study. “Rather, our results are consistent with the idea that part of the scientific field embodied in the invisible college of coauthors working in that area dies along with the star — that superstar extinction represents a genuine and irreplaceable loss of human capital.”
The New Scientist story offers tips for how to maximize positive social connections. It sounds like scientists need more than productive, positive social connections, at least when hitching their research wagon to a superstar. So, Steve Jobs’ health may send ripples of angst through Apple fans and stockholders. But if the same trends hold for tech and biomedicine. such worries might be rational.