Duke Alum Works at the Intersection of Physics and Sociology

Monday, August 15, 2011

What’s an alumnus of the Duke Physics department doing as a post-doc in the sociology department at the University of Chicago? Ask Jacob Foster ’03, who is doing just that. “Many of the most interesting and challenging problems for people who want to work on complex systems are in the social sciences,” he says. Foster, who earned his PhD in physics from the University of Calgary, adds, “The training I got at Duke and at Calgary put me in a pretty good position to act as an interpreter between the two disciplines.” Foster applies his physics-based knowledge of complex systems to questions in the social sciences involving other kinds of complex systems—such as human interactions. He first became interested in complex systems as a physics undergraduate, working with Professor Henry Greenside. He also became interested in the study of knowledge at Duke while taking a literary theory class from Professor Thomas Ferraro. After studying mathematical physics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he went to the University of Calgary, where he worked with the complex systems group in the physics department.

While at Calgary, he attended an interdisciplinary workshop on the social sciences and the “new sciences”—in this case, complex systems and quantum information science. At the workshop, he spoke to a Calgary sociologist about the similarities between ideas in social theory and complex systems. The conversation reignited Foster’s longstanding interest in translating between narrative and mathematical languages to answer emerging questions related to the formation of knowledge and ideas. As a result of that conversation, he was introduced to James Evans at the University of Chicago, who later offered him a post-doc position. “I was very fortunate that James Evans was looking for someone who had a complex networks background,” Foster says, “and I was looking for a sociologist who could help me complete my training so I could do research in a cross-disciplinary space between physics and sociology. It just works out brilliantly.” Evans and Foster published an essay in the February 11 issue of Science titled “Metaknowledge.” Foster says the “data deluge” in the digital world presents new research opportunities. Evans and Foster plan to use computational techniques to mine the data deluge to learn how cognitive and social factors influence the progress and path of science. “Metaknowledge means knowledge about knowledge,” Foster says. “It involves looking at the distribution of various quantities of interest across a vast landscape of millions of scientific publications. Fairly small signals, aggregated over millions of articles, leave enough of a trace that you can detect the effects of biases, heuristics, or preferences—and start imagining how you could build a procedure to account for them.” For example, he says, the process could be used to learn why certain areas of science have been investigated heavily, while other areas are investigated lightly or not at all. In some cases the reason may be based on science, but in other cases the reason may be based on the social context, such as the beliefs of one or two leading authorities in the field. “You can identify areas where a consensus that something was important or unimportant may have been achieved prematurely,” he says. This kind of information could help scientists and funding agencies be more strategic when choosing projects to pursue. After his post-doc, Foster hopes to find a faculty position where he can continue his interdisciplinary work. He’d also like to encourage students to think between disciplines, just as his Duke professors encouraged him. “The folks in the physics department were always very encouraging in terms of me thinking about odd things,” Foster says. “I did my senior thesis with Berndt Mueller on physics with two time dimensions. And Josh Socolar advised me to take a literary theory course instead of a graduate physics course. He told me I could always take more physics but I might not have an opportunity to take a literary theory course as a graduate student.” Foster says he’d like to reach out to students like himself—people with a solid mathematical and analytical background who are able to get excited about emerging questions in other data-rich fields. “We’re all aware of the challenging questions in physics these days, but your typical undergraduate physics major has no idea that there are equally fascinating and perhaps practically more important research going on right now in statistics or sociology. As the world of data continues to grow and as we anticipate all these challenges—climate change, how to build an economy on information and ideas—the questions in social science will really become an incredibly fruitful place for these students to work.” View more photos on Flickr here.