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A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature
quantifying human experience,” says neuroscientist Read Montague, “in the same way we quantify airflow over the wings of a Boeing 777.”5
In short, Nash’s math—with the rest of modern game theory built around it—is now the weapon of choice in the scientist’s arsenal on a wide range of research frontiers related to human behavior. In fact, Herbert Gintis contends, game theory has become “a universal language for the unification of the behavioral sciences.”6
I think it might go even farther than that. Game theory may become the language not just of the behavioral sciences, but of all the sciences.
As science stands today, that claim is rather bold. It might even be wrong. But game theory already has conquered the social sciences and invaded biology. And it is now, in the works of a few pioneering scientists, forming a powerful alliance with physics. Physicists, of course, have always sought a unity in the ultimate description of nature, and game theory may have the potential to be a great unifier.
That realization hit me in early 2004, when I read a paper by physicist-mathematician David Wolpert, who works at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Wolpert’s paper disclosed a deep connection between the math of game theory and statistical mechanics, one of the most powerful all-purpose tools used by physicists for describing the complexities of the world.
Physicists have used statistical mechanics for more than a century to describe such things as gases, chemical reactions, and the properties of magnetic materials—essentially to quantify the behavior of matter in all sorts of circumstances. It’s a way to describe the big picture when lacking data about the details. You can’t track every one of the trillion trillion molecules of air zipping around in a room, for instance, but statistical mechanics can tell you how an air conditioner will affect the overall temperature.
It’s no coincidence that statistical mechanics (which encompasses the kinetic theory of gases) is the math that inspired Asimov’s heroic mathematician, Hari Seldon, to invent psycho-