cadre of scientists seeking new worlds for physics to conquer. Everything from the flow of funds in the stock market to the flow of traffic on interstate highways has been the subject of statistical-physics study.

So the use of statistical physics to describe society is not an entirely new endeavor. But the closing years of the 20th century saw an explosion of new research in that arena, and as the 21st century opened, that trend turned into a tidal wave. Behind it all was a surprising burst of new insight into the mathematics describing complex networks. The use of statistical physics to describe such networks has propelled an obscure branch of math called “graph theory” into the forefront of social physics research. And it has all come about because of a game, starring an actor named Kevin Bacon.

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