It’s a rather unsur­prising idea: Humans do things in bursts of activity. “We do not do things uni­formly,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and founding director of Northeastern’s world-​​leading Center for Com­plex Net­work Research.

Instead, he said, each one of our actions is cor­re­lated to those that came before. For instance, per­haps we send 16 emails in a half-​​hour period and then surf the Web for an hour. Or maybe we make a few calls in the after­noon and then set the phone down for the rest of the evening.

Though it may be a sub­con­scious side-​​effect of evo­lu­tion or simply con­ve­nience, our bursty behavior allows net­work sci­en­tists like Barabási to pre­dict how we will act in the future and, by exten­sion, how the prod­ucts of our bursty work — our money, our tweets or even our ideas — will travel through society.

But these pre­dic­tions depend on robust math­e­mat­ical algo­rithms. Until recently, the net­work sci­en­tists’ stan­dard tools tended to “give rise to pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tions, even though the events were totally inde­pen­dent,“ said Barabási. For pre­dom­i­nantly random sys­tems, these models work fine. Not so with bursty systems.

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