Sunday, December 19, 2010

Awesome NYT magazine article about a physicist who's never heard of Regional Science

It's long but it's break and you have time to read it and I really want to discuss it in the comments section.


jane said...

This is what I said in my google reader feed when I shared it:
I like the idea that he came up with a similar punchline of Jane Jacobs and think that conceptually, it is an interesting proposition and thought experiment. Two things though. 1. It struck me that the difference between explaining/discovering biological sublinear equations and city-level sublinear equations is the presence of politics and human conflict. If you can figure out the equation for that, let me know. If not, then I think some of this might be, as the author notes at the end "mere correlations." 2. I say to this guy, go for it, but only if the equations aren't going to be used in policies and cities will still be able speak for themselves to say, "that's inaccurate" or to be an outlier where they may be an outlier. (I think this would render the entire idea of applying these equations moot which is, in conslusion, just fine with me)

...and another thing. he isn't "solving" the city--classic over-hyped headline, nyt. he's describing it. you can't use what he said to figure out what to do with the vacant land in detroit, or the traffic congestion in tokyo.

Also, here is a RadioLab that I think does a better job at talkinga bout the same set of theories/physicists:

Stephen said...

I'd agree with pretty much all of that, Jane. It's one thing to find a grand unifying set of coefficients to describe an urban system, but it's a lot harder to figure out why specific cities deviate from those coefficients. That's why that "history is a mere contingency" line ticked me off.

I found the original paper this article is based off of and it raises more questions that it solves, re: his methodology. It's weird that for such a bigshot theoretical physicist he appears to just be using the simple statistical methods any 1st year PhD social science student uses (i.e., OLS regressions), only with an absurdly huge data set.

I did like that line about planners being the parties responsible for "minimizing the costs and maximizing the benefits of city living." I wouldn't call it a perfect definition, and I hate using microeconomic terminology to justify what we do (or will be doing in our case), but that's definitely a line that can be used at a cocktail mixer.

p.s. HI JANE! Hope you're doing well in the D.

D. Kay said...

If you like this you should take UP552 from Ed Feser this semester. I'd suggest the two credit version for MUPs.