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Network Theory:The Key to Understanding Nature

Network Theory: The Key to Understanding Nature

Perhaps the most basic example of network theory is the “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” phenomenon, studying the interconnectedness of people in society and how they are never more than 6 “links” away from knowing Kevin Bacon. Researchers realized that they could take this theory of interconnectedness and expand it to other aspects of our world. Ecologists have been applying this system to nature, in order to discover the rules that organize all of these intricately connected networks. By discovering and understanding these linkages and rules, they hope to be able to better foster bio-diversity by building and nurturing these relationships. They are also tracking changes and breakdowns of relationships in the network to discover how natural disasters and biological threats shake up the networks. If scientists can recognize signs that point to a shaky connection or unstable network, they hope to be able to take steps to avoid the breakdown and rebuild the network. The closing statement of the article, “The forest will tell ecologists more about trouble to come than any individual tree,” shows the importance of getting the whole picture to be able to determine where weaknesses lie.

We can use network theory to track relationships within ecosystems and they between separate ecosystems themselves. Links can be formed between predators and prey, parasite and host or pollen source and pollinator. You can also link species based on their global location, in order to see where certain animals thrive. Location can also be used to analyze if the species could thrive better if forcibly moved to another location. There could be less predators, more of their prey to feed on or more similar species that could thrive if put together. These are just a few basic examples of how to connect organisms within an ecosystem using network theory.

Studying the modularization of the network can also alert scientists to places where there could possibly be future breakdowns. If one large module is linked to another large module, but with weak ties, this could lead to eventual separation of one module from another. This would be a problem if there is one organism in each module that depend on each other and these ties are suddenly severed. This leads us to another potential problem, the presence of a local bridge, where two modules are connected by a single tie. Only this one tie needs to be lost for both  modules to lose all contact with each other. Depending on the interconnectedness of the modules, this could lead to the destruction of an entire module if a node is suddenly lost. Through network theory, scientists can identify where these issues might occur and brainstorm ways to build more, stronger relationships between those modules in anticipation for possible breakdown.

Scientists hope to use network theory to track changes in ecosystems and determine how different species live and build off of each other. By recognizing strong links, or tight connectedness within nodes, scientists can develop ways to foster these relationships for even more growth and prospering. Conversely, by recognizing weak or deteriorating relationships, scientists can figure out ways to strengthen these links, or determine ways to reorganize the ecosystem network to better foster growth and avoid breakdown due to biological hazards.





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