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The Physics of Gridlock


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BERTRAND Russell once observed that animal behaviorists studying the problem-solving abilities of chimpanzees consistently seemed to detect in their experimental subjects the "national characteristics" of the scientists themselves. A divergence in the findings of the practical-minded Americans and the theoretically inclined Germans was particularly apparent.

Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically, with an incredible display of hustle and pep, and at last achieve the desired result by chance. Animals observed by Germans sit still and think, and at last evolve the solution out of their inner consciousness.

In science, Germans tend to come up with things like the uncertainty principle. Americans tend to come up with things like the atomic bomb.

I love the last paragraph of this article:

Even if traffic engineers manage to slay the mathematical bogeyman that theoretical physics and chaos theory have unleashed, another bogeyman may be lurking nearby. It turns out that the properties collectively exhibited by large numbers of cars moving over a network of roadways have many mathematical features in common with the behavior of other things that flow over networks, such as data carried by telephone lines and the Internet. The mathematics of networks is a well-studied topic in communications research, and a recent paper draws on this body of theory to establish an interesting paradox about the flow of vehicular traffic: adding a new road segment to an existing network of roadways can under certain circumstances reduce the car-carrying capacity of the network as a whole. The safest advice for budding engineers may be, If you want determinacy, stick to something simple -- like rockets or atomic bombs.

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