Here’s a book for the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in the audience. And for those others of us brave enough, and curious enough, to dip our mental toes in the water.
Sometimes it seems that all you hear about these days are networks and networking. Of course home and office computer networks are one type, but most of the buzz is about social networks – the ways in which people connect. Books about talking about the power and implications of various types of formal and informal networks, and what the future holds. People talk about networks as if they were their best friends, intimate familiars, but how many have really looked “under the hood?” Or under the microscope? What does a Facebook or Twitter really look like?
Once in a while I like to get a scientific book and at least take a glance under the hood. I resent it when someone says (or implies) “That’s too technical for you; you don’t want to know that.” As an entrepreneur, I need to think for myself. The better I understand the actual workings of something, the better I can think about it and see the opportunities and pitfalls.
I recently became interested in pharmaceuticals, what made them really work. I got some books about molecules and biochemistry. Pretty much all I could do, without taking a few weeks off to read textbooks, was drift through the pretty pictures and read the captions and a few stories of discoveries in order to get a “feel” for the field. But I still know a lot more now that I would have if I had never cracked those books.
In my present pursuit, my first questions included, “What really defines a network? What do they look like when mapped out? What are their properties, especially when mathematically defined?”
And I was lucky to discover that one of those “best books ever written definitive tomes” had just come out – Social and Economic Networks by Matthew O. Jackson (Princeton University Press, 2008). Jackson, an economics professor at Stanford, appears to have won accolades for this book from most or all of his colleagues in the study of networks – they use words like lucid, comprehensive, and elegant, and as far as I can tell, they are spot on.
This book is full of math – be especially wary if you fear that sigma sign that looks like a funny E and means “summation.” But it’s also full of easier-to-understand illustrations and even-easier-to-understand examples and stories. Jackson opens the book with the example of the connections between the families of renaissance Florence, centered on the Medici – and goes on to talk about what “centered” really means.
As I flipped through this book, I found that, even without restudying all the math I have forgotten since college, I could understand many of the basic concepts by reading these stories and studying the illustrations and graphs. The book is nicely broken into basic concepts, and separate sections act as refresher courses on math and theory (including game theory).
If you want quick, light reading, this book is definitely not for you. If your brain will shut down on any page on which a long formula appears, this book is not for you. If you don’t want to make your brain work up a sweat, this book is not for you. But if you know anyone who has a hankering to really understand networks and how they work and what current research on them has found, get this book for them! Or for your curious self.