2:00 pm EST - 3:30 pm EST

Past Event

Social Physics: How Human Social Networks Spread Ideas

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2:00 pm - 3:30 pm EST

Brookings Institution
Saul/Zilkha Rooms

1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC


On February 18, the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution hosted an event to discuss MIT Media Lab Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s new book. Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science (Penguin Press, 2014).

The event was moderated by Ann R. and Andrew H. Tisch Distinguished Visiting Fellow Cameron Kerry and included a presentation by MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland followed by a panel of Co-founder and Executive Vice President of Hunch Analytics Aneesh Chopra and Vice President of Governance Studies and Founding Director of the Center for Technology Innovation Darrell West.

Pentland described his coined term, “social physics” as quantitative science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow and people’s behavior – how ideas flow from person to person and how they shape norms, productivity and creative output. Coupled with new tools into collect and analyze big data on human interaction, the science of social physics yields insights on how large groups of people make decisions across disciplines, including health, finance, and politics.

Highlights from Pentland

  • Social physics as a term is “over two centuries old,” yet the challenges are very modern as they relate to ethical dimensions surrounding big data and policy making.
  • “As big data, things off of cellphones, off of badges, off of credit cards becomes available, it’s a little bit scary for society, but it’s a gold mine for social science.”
  • “Social Physics is when social science meets big data.”

Highlights from the panelists

  • Kerry named Sandy Pentland the “Father of Social Physics,” and discussed privacy in terms of big data.
  • Chopra argued that “individuals are taking possession of their own data,” and that there is a “whole economy forming around managing and sharing big data.”
  • West discussed how big data and social physics can affect government and that “data analytics applied to education and healthcare can be very challenging.” West also mentioned skewed incentives against risk taking in the public sector as a main obstacle in creating innovative solutions to governance problems.

To learn more about Social Physics, visit