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What do short messages and earthquakes have in common?

According to a new study, communication via short messaging can be described with the same mathematical laws used for describing the occurrence of earthquakes, strong rainfalls and forest fires, the electrical firing of neurons, or even stock trading.

The occurrence of these events is apparently chaotic but they obey the same statistical principles, a German-Chinese team of scientists around Jürgen Kurths from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) reports in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A typical conversation using short messages starts with an initial message followed by a series of mutual sending and replying. The time between two such events shows the same typical pattern as an earthquake followed by a series of aftershocks.

Whereas intervals between two initial messages are usually long and erratic, intervals between replies are comparatively shorter – much like those between aftershocks following an earthquake.

Similar principles can be found in many other types of human communication like e-mail exchanges or internet chats. It is expected that precise mathematical descriptions of these events will allow for optimizing communication infrastructures in future. “Based on these results, we should even be able to derive ways for improving phone-line availability or the allocation of internet bandwidths,” says Jürgen Kurths.

The mathematical methods used by the researchers to investigate short messaging behaviour are also used in climate research to reveal the principles underlying the occurrence of extreme climate and weather events and to improve their predictability. Moreover, the principles which underlie modern communication are essential building blocks for computer simulations of social systems. Such simulations are currently developed at PIK.

Article: Ye Wu, Changsong Zhou, Jinghua Xiao, Jürgen Kurths, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber: Evidence for a bimodal distribution in human communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (2010), doi:10.1073/pnas.101314010710.1073

Supplemental material:

For further information please contact the PIK press office:

Phone: +49 331 288 2507

Uta Pohlmann | idw
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