László Barabási unfolds the sheet of heavy paper across his desk.
It’s a big sheet, bigger than the desk, bigger than many highway maps, and covered with lines and chemical symbols in several colors.
“This represents about the work of several Nobel Prizes,” the associate professor of physics says.
What the document — readily available from a Swiss publisher of teaching aids — shows is scientific shorthand for the world’s accumulated knowledge about how a cell works; it might be called the periodic table of cell biology. Barabási hopes someday to discover the network that undergirds cell development and functioning, making it possible to create a kind of comprehensive schematic diagram of living matter.
“If there is a problem with the network of a system [as in a cell], the system doesn’t work,” he says. “If we can find out how the networks form and what their properties are, then we can characterize them and make predictions.”
That includes predicting what will happen when you try to correct a malfunction in the system, as in, say, treating cancer.
Understanding the patterns and networks that shape life is what drives Barabási, a 32-year-old native of the Transylvania region of Romania who came to the United States in the early 1990s to earn his doctorate in physics from Boston University. He joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1995 after a year at IBM’s research facility outside New York City.
Barabási specializes in statistical mechanics, which attempts to describe mathematically the randomness and disorder in physical systems. In recent years he’s made some startling discoveries. One is that a wide range of phenomena — from the flowering of a cauliflower head to the clumping together of individual grains of sand when water is added — all follow a similar pattern. Barabási has also demonstrated that both natural and man-made networks seem to organize themselves along similar lines. Among the networks he’s dissected is the presumably haphazardly growing World Wide Web. The Web’s cross-connections turn out to bear a striking resemblance to the world’s electric power grids and even to the network underlying the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the game some movie fans play that ties the ubiquitous actor to any other actor or actress by way of common TV and movie appearances with intermediary stars. In fact, Barabási says he has yet to find any network organized differently.
The question is, why?
“When it comes to pattern formation, there are a lot of common phenomena,” he says. “What you try to understand is, why are they similar? What physical forces are creating this?”
If Barabási can solve that mystery, he’ll surely be in line for a Nobel Prize of his own.