Engraving by Paul Revere (June 1774) titled “America Swallowing the Bitter Draught” illustrates the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party and the closing of the port. (Image: U.S. National Archives)

An SFI meeting on Honolulu in March is bringing together researchers – physicists and historians alike – who think they can rewrite history books.

Many historians believe the historical chronicle, with its linear chain of causal events, “is the essence of history and always will be,” says SFI Professor David Krakauer. “Others are beginning to see more of a structure to it.”

David, who is co-organizing the presentations, says the primary question is whether historians might bene t from the language and principles of complexity science, much as the fields of ecology and economics have.

The project is part of a longstanding interest in history and complexity at SFI that includes the work of SFI External Professor John Padgett (University of Chicago), SFI External Professor Doug White (UC Irvine), SFI Trustee Robert McCormick Adams (Smithsonian, UC

San Diego), and SFI External Professor Henry Wright (University of Michigan).

But imposing a scientific framework on history is dif cult, says David. History is narrative – by necessity a subjective interpretation of events and personalities, characterized by particularity rather than regularity.

Sciences, on the other hand, aggregate repeated observations of regularity into laws. Thus, the future of the solar system can be predicted with relative accuracy with knowledge of the locations of planets today and the application of Newton’s laws, he says.

In this sense, David says, Newton is one of the greatest historians who ever lived, as he was able to recount the past and predict the future with equal accuracy.

At the March meeting David and colleagues plan to address the gap between science and history from a variety of perspectives and approaches. Four major SFI donors are attending the meeting.

As one approach, the tools of complexity science could, in effect, quantify randomness and regularity in historical events.

Another approach would address the subjectivity of historical narrative – in other words, how historians today determine which events are historical or significant and which are not using the tools and principles of coarse graining from physics. At one end of the spectrum, individuals and personalities are historically significant; at the other end, history captures only large-scale movements or population-wide trends.

“What counts as an historical event? What are the variables? These are important questions for history,” he says. 

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