Network science is about more than computer systems

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. ' Government researchers in fields as diverse as biotechnology, ecosystems and behavioral science are looking for common patterns in the systems they study, to see if they can be applied to the development of robust complex networks, whether for computer systems or organizational structures.

A panel convened at the Association of the United States Army winter symposium yesterday discussed some of the parallels between biological systems, such as the circulatory, respiratory and central nervous systems in fish, the behaviors of proteins in bacteria and the organization of an airline's flight routes, to show how their behaviors may be mirrored in the performance of networks.

Understanding biological, molecular and economic networks is necessary to design large, complex networks whose behaviors can be predicted in advance, said Jagadeesh Pamulapati, deputy director for laboratory management and assistant Army secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology.

The search centers on finding the answer to, 'What are the underlying rules in common?' he said. Can a common language be used to describe all these systems? Is there a mathematical formula to describe their behaviors and relationships?

Jaques Reifman, chief scientist for advanced technology and telemedicine in the Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command, said that modeling protein interactions inside e. coli and plague bacteria is a form of comparing networks to understand 'why in two related viruses, sharing more than 50 percent of proteins, one's more virulent, more deadly, than the other.'

Reifman offered the theory that proteins can be judged for 'essentiality' based on how many connections they make with other proteins, and these hub proteins are more likely to be centrally located within the network of interactions.

'I study fish because it's the data we can get,' said Lt. Col. John Graham, assistant professor for behavior sciences and leadership at West Point. Humans are resistant to providing access to their e-mail traffic, for instance, to allow the generation of very large datasets for study. But the understanding of networks is critical, he said, because 'the bad guys are getting good at network science.'

Graham took some of the conclusions from the study of biological networks and demonstrated how they can be applied to social networks, including prospective terrorist networks. The most effective attacks will target 'boundary spanners,' the people who bridge gaps in communications, he said.

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