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Brief Book Review: Linked. Posted on 08/08/2002.

Linked: The New Science of Networks, by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, is hands-down the best science book I've read in a while. First off, I find it quite remarkable that a Transylvanian physicist is able to write such a delightfully accessible book. Stories are wisely used to illustrate every element of networks discussed, demonstrating that, at a conceptual level, the theories of networks are eminently graspable.

Barabasi is a major player in this emerging field, and his first-person viewpoint, and excitement in pursuing the subject, proves contagious when reading this work. After setting up some brief background on early network theory, Barabasi spends the bulk of the text discussing his discovery, that of "scale-free" networks, and how, it seems, most every network seems to evolve into a scale-free form. (Scale-free networks give rise to "small worlds", which in turn lead to phenomena like "six degrees of separation," where a seemingly improbably low number of links are required to connect any two nodes in a system.)

The strength of the first-person also accounts for the book's main flaw, which is a sense of myopia, in that I was left to wonder, "is scale-free really all there is?" Still, it's a small problem in an otherwise engaging read.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is often brought up in these discussions of networks (it's cited in Linked). However, where as Gladwell was utterly unable to provide a convincingly coherent theory (though, it seems, sadly, that many people DO think his thesis all adds up), Linked successfully shows how the various pieces of the network puzzle integrate, and thus is a far more illuminating work--you feel like you can act on it.

Oh, and props to Valdis for warranting a lengthy mention in the book!

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I just returned from a 2-week vacation up in Algonquin Park, Ontario. No TV, Internet access or even radio. I did take along a stack of books, including two that were somewhat work-related - "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" and "Linked". The former was a let down, but the latter knocked me out. I can't tell you how many times I looked up from my reading and exclaimed to my wife and son, "This is REALLY a good book." Anyway, I get back and run smack into your review. I just wanted to say that I concur. The book provides so much clarity and lights up so many corners that I can live with the myopia. I prefer a book that starts a ball rolling - that makes me want to explore what else is out there - to one that feels complete in and of itself. I also liked how well the title describes not only the content, but the structure of the book. In this, it succeeds precisely where the Weinberger book fails.
Posted by Tom Brzezina @ 08/10/2002 05:59 AM PST [link to this comment]

Peter asks -- is scale-free really all there is?

There are several aspects of the question.

First -- is scale-free the only interesting and prevalent type of network?

There are a couple of different ways that a network can gain small-world properties -- either by being "scale-free", which is to say, a few nodes holding a high percentage of links (I don't get how the term scale-free means hierarchical, but anyway); or by having a few nodes having longer-distance links (Duncan Watts' research focused on this.)

Second, how much does "scale-freeness" or "small-worldsness" explain about the properties of networks.

The smallworldsness or scale-free-ness tells you how the network is wired, and tells you interesting thinks like how viruses spread and how the network is vulnerable to attack. But it doesn't tell you how the connections work among nodes, and what the connections do.

E.g. in a brain, with what patterns do neurons fire? How do those firing patterns create responses in a critter. How does the "small worlds" wiring help the critter respond to sensation.

Barabasi doesn't talk much about this second type of question - it seems like are a lot of interesting connections still to be made there.
Posted by Adina Levin @ 08/14/2002 07:32 PM PST [link to this comment]

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