Face­book, Google, and other expan­sive Internet sites share impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tics with com­plex bio­log­ical sys­tems, says physi­cist Ginestra Bianconi—both con­tain a vast number and variety of link­ages that can be better under­stood through net­work theory.

In par­tic­ular, Bianconi’s latest research focuses on mod­eling the evo­lu­tion and dynamics of net­works in dif­ferent con­texts: from the Internet to social inter­ac­tions to neural networks.

It turns out that there is almost an equiv­a­lence between com­plex sys­tems and net­works: there is no brain without links between neu­rons, there is no society without social inter­ac­tion between indi­vid­uals,” she says.

Physics con­cepts and ideas play a cru­cial role in the under­standing of the com­plexity of net­works,” she says. “In the last decade we have gained a deep under­standing of the key struc­tural prop­er­ties of these net­works, with impor­tant break­throughs showing that some aspects of these net­works are universal.”

By “uni­versal,” Bian­coni means that the same fun­da­mental struc­tural char­ac­ter­is­tic­sare shared by net­works linking every­thing from Internet con­nec­tions to pro­tein inter­ac­tions in the cell, to the net­work of researchers who cite each others’ papers, to col­lab­o­ra­tions among sci­en­tists or musicians.

Bianconi’s research attempts to quan­tify the ran­dom­ness and the order present in com­plex net­works with dif­ferent struc­tural char­ac­ter­is­tics, and she has found that uni­ver­sal­i­ties also play a cru­cial role for dynamic processes on networks.

In net­work physics, the same math­e­mat­ical descrip­tion might apply to the processes that yield a “win­ning” species in an eco­log­ical net­work or a “win­ning” search engine like Google in the cyber net­work that is the Internet, says Bianconi.

More­over these sys­tems can be “mapped” on a quantum physics model, ulti­mately yielding better under­standing of the net­works involved,” she says.

The newly hired assis­tant pro­fessor of physics joins North­eastern Uni­ver­sity from the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame, where she received her doc­toral degree.

Bian­coni says she was drawn to the physics of com­plex net­works because it allows her to see unex­pected uni­ver­sal­i­ties between dif­ferent sys­tems and phe­nomena, and because she was chal­lenged to find out their under­lying common math­e­mat­ical frame­work. This year, she was drawn to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity because of the cutting-​​edge work being done on campus in the area of net­work science.

Bian­coni has pub­lished widely, including two journal arti­cles with North­eastern physi­cist Albert-​​Laszlo Barabasi, the director of the University’s world-​​leading Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. Most recently, she coau­thored “Assessing the Rel­e­vance of Node Fea­tures for Net­work Struc­ture,” which was pub­lished in the July 14 issue of the journal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sciences.