If you’ve driven on the highway, you’ve seen it: The traffic jam appears out of nowhere and disappears just as mysteriously.  We blame the cars around us for their poor driving skills, and slam on our own breaks. During an AAAS annual meeting session hosted by Northeastern professor Albert-László Barabási, Northwestern professor Dirk Helbing showed a video of cars driving at constant speed around a circular race track. Eventually, small variations in driving speed propagate into a cascading traffic jam that travels backwards around the track.

You can imagine how more cars would allow this phenomenon, which emerges as a result of the cars’ interconnectedness, would happen a little quicker on a more congested track. This is how I think about our world these days. More than seven billion people are traveling around this giant track and we’re getting ourselves into some nasty jams. Climate change, financial meltdowns, the Arab Spring, SARS: most of the large scale problems we’re now facing stem from the fact that our system has grown too big for its britches.

Of course, it’s not just a problem of size. It’s also a problem of connectedness. Because human socioeconomic and technical systems are deeply intertwined through global networks of things like mobility and money, small perturbations are vastly amplified.

But just as our population has grown, so too has our ability to track that population. More data has emerged in the last two years than did in all preceding human history. Alone that would just be an overwhelming concept worthy of little more than a minor panic attack, but coupled with insights from the physical sciences and mathematical modeling, we are now in a position to actually probe all that data and use it to understand the underlying mechanisms that govern human behavior.

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