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Statistical Physics in Diverse Realisations

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When maths meet ancient myths

EU-funded scientists have shown how statistical physics can open new avenues of research in humanities. Examining social networks implied in myths helped them understand how close they are to reality.

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The SPIDER (Statistical physics in diverse realisations) initiative brought together natural scientists with humanities scholars to achieve a better understanding of Europe's cultural heritage. The project set out to investigate age-old mythical narratives with new techniques. A rigorous mathematical approach was adopted to examine Homer's 'Iliad', the old Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' and the Irish epic 'Tain Bo Cuailnge'. SPIDER scientists examined interconnections between their characters and categorised their relationships as hostile or friendly. The narrative networks had some characteristics typical of real-world networks. Like real networks in materials where lots of elementary particles interact with each other, all three are scale-free. In other words, the number of links originating from a given node follows a power-law distribution. Specifically, someone with many acquaintances was represented by a high-degree network node and someone who knew hardly anyone corresponded to a low-degree node. The number of people against the degree each person has was well described by a power law. The SPIDER team looked at the interactions between characters in epic poems. Viewing their relationships as complex systems, they used techniques of statistical physics to explore whether the communities they describe are credible. The new approach was very different from comparative mythology. It was not literary analysis. The investigations are an example of curiosity-driven research. SPIDER has demonstrated how ideas inspired from statistical physics can help other fields of inquiry. Scientists concluded that in these mythical narratives, the societies described resemble modern social networks and are, therefore, remarkably realistic. The results had an enormous impact on the scientific community as well the wider public, as newspapers and magazines took up the story.


Ancient myths, statistical physics, social networks, SPIDER, power law

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