A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Won’t you be my neighbor?

I’m playing with graphs again. Here’s a picture of my net-neighborhood out to two steps, i.e., the sites on my blogroll and the sites on their blogrolls.

graph of blog links

Web Neighborhood

The funniest thing about this graph is that, despite the fact that it was designed to be my neighborhood, Idiosophy isn’t in the center.  Olga’s Middle Earth Reflections is. (Fair enough; her blog has more than a thousand followers.) Science teaches humility, along with everything else.

Nobody else is interested in economics, so Grasping Reality is ‘way over in the corner. The rest of the network is easier to read if I cut that one link.

Zooming in on the non-economic network

J.R.R. Tolkien brings together some diverse parts of the world. There are priests and theologians along the south, language-inventors up in the northwest corner, medievalists in the northeast, and a little knot of modernists on the east side.  Nobody who knows Tolkien’s curriculum vitae would be surprised to see that list (except perhaps for the economists and the physicist), but if there’s anything else in life that connects these communities, it doesn’t come immediately to mind.

Technical note

Drawing these graphs took ten minutes.  The tools you can download freely from the Web are amazing.  This was made by the “igraph” package in R.  To make these plots, I used an algorithm that simulates a simplified physical system to place the nodes. It puts an electric charge on the nodes, so they want to be separated and legible. Then it pretends the links are rubber bands, so inter-linked nodes are pulled tighter together.  I learned how to do this from an excellent tutorial by Katherine Ognyanova. (Who must be one of us; she posted the etymology of her name on her blog. I wonder if she’s related to the Vedic fire-god Agni.)


Twitter Voices


Echoes of Númenór


  1. I admire your graphs, sir. They’re spectacular!

  2. Jeff

    One way of achieving spectacular graphs is by using the oldest of the tools: GraphViz. It’s worked for me for 25 years, so it can’t be all bad, aside from being a piece of software that’s a quarter century old.

    As an example of using its power for evil, here’s a graph of the references in my dissertation, and their references, and their references, ad insaniam, or more likely propter insanum.

    • Joe

      intimidate=TRUE by default, I presume.
      Another thing I like about igraph is that it’s not a stand-alone visualizer, it sits on top of calculators for all the quantitative metrics of the network. I’ve read so many cranky papers by Frank Harary about how people are just making pictures and not actually using any of the math, that I’m afraid his ghost would haunt me for using GraphViz.

      • Jeff Sn

        I’m briefly perplexed because it seems the whole universe sits on top of Python. I’ve seen whole PhDs accomplished on the back of “I did this thing in Python that everyone else has been using Fortran77 for…” But I concede the point, without conceding that I’d rather use Python for almost any task than R.

        I shared my graph because it’s abjectly awful. Unless there’s a design award in the category “Pastel Chthonic”.

        I was hoping to see a tree of knowledge stretching from our earliest ancestors (who published in high impact journals) to today. Instead I achieved this nest of oddly colored earthworms and a font too small to read. Its only value was highlighting the articles trapped behind a paywall too high and deep for even a university librarian to breach.

        Your graphs are both interesting and useful and reflect a design ethic I can only admire.

        • Joe

          From a Python at the center of the world to the tree of knowledge in five sentences! 👏 With all the myths about snakes and trees and forbidden wisdom, you’d think we’d be able to make this metaphor work within one mythology, but I can’t do it either.

          R can be a pain, so I jump back and forth between it and good old command-line text bashing.

          (And yeah, that was exactly the message I got from your graph. Good thing you kept it – I foresee that some day it’ll be useful. Some person who’s uncertain about grad school could be saved from a terrible mistake.)

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