issue. At various schools and institutes around the world, collaborators from diverse departments are creating new hybrid disciplines, with names like econophysics, socionomics, evolutionary economics, social cognitive neuroscience, and experimental economic anthropology. At the Santa Fe Institute, a new behavioral sciences program focuses on economic behavior and cultural evolution. The National Science Foundation has identified “human and social dynamics” as a special funding initiative.
Almost daily, research papers in this genre appear in scientific journals or on the Internet. Some examine voting patterns in diverse populations, how crowds behave when fleeing in panic, or why societies rise and fall. Others describe ways to forecast trends in the stock market or the likely effect of antiterrorist actions. Still others analyze how rumors, fads, or new technologies spread.
Diverse as they are, all these enterprises share a common goal of better understanding the present in order to foresee the future, and possibly help shape it. Put them all together, and Asimov’s idea for a predictive science of human history no longer seems unthinkable. It may be inevitable.
Among the newest of these enterprises—and closest to the spirit of Asimov’s psychohistory—is a field called sociophysics. The name has been around for decades, but only in the 21st century has it become more science than slogan. Like Asimov’s psychohistory, sociophysics is rooted in statistical mechanics, the math used by physicists to describe systems too complex to expose the intimate interactions of their smallest pieces. Just as physicists use statistical mechanics to show how the temperature of two chemicals influences how they react, sociophysicists believe they can use statistical mechanics to take the temperature of society, thereby quantifying and predicting social behavior.
Taking society’s temperature isn’t quite as straightforward as it is with, say, gas molecules in a room. People usually don’t behave the same way as molecules bouncing off the walls, except during some major sporting events. To use statistical physics to take society’s temperature, physicists first have to figure out where to stick the thermometer.