associated with them. However, this difference is only superficial. In fact, mathematicians have derived a way of measuring energy on any network.

The way they do this is with something called a Laplacian, which has characteristic frequencies or eigenvalues, just like a vibrating molecule. Those frequencies collectively form a spectrum, and this spectrum is in many cases the best way to gain an overview of the network. For instance, it helps you find cliques (closely connected sets of nodes) and transportation bottlenecks.

But there is a problem of scale, because the networks of today are much larger than those in molecules. For example, the users of Facebook form a social network with nearly 1 billion active users. An Intel Xeon chip is a network with 800 million transistors. The Web is a network with 46 billion Web pages (and growing). Mathematical scientists have to design, in effect, a new kind of spectrometer to compute the spectra of such immense graphs.

Laplacians have a very long history—in fact, they predate both the concept of molecular spectra and the concept of graph theory. They were first defined in the 19th century to solve problems of heat flow and wave motion. The heat equation says that heat will flow toward any point that is colder than the average of its neighbors and away from any point that is warmer. The wave equation says that a point on a vibrating drumhead will accelerate in the direction of the average of its neighbors. In both cases, the operation “averaging the neighbors” is performed by a differential operator called the Laplacian (see Figure 17).

In the drum example, the eigenvalues of the Laplacian correspond to particularly simple modes of vibration, which we hear as the fundamental frequency and the overtones of the drum. In the heat equation, the eigenvalues have a slightly different interpretation. A cooling bar of metal has a relaxation time that governs how rapidly the bar cools off. This time is inversely related to the first (or smallest) eigenvalue of the Laplacian.


17 / Fundamental modes of vibration of a drum. Notice how certain frequencies of vibration isolate certain regions of the drum. Graph spectra are based on a similar idea, with the drumhead being replaced by a network of springs. /

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement