The Physics of Terror

After studying four decades of terrorism, Aaron Clauset thinks he’s found mathematical patterns that can help governments prevent and prepare for major terror attacks. The U.S. government seems to agree.

  1. Last summer, physicist Aaron Clauset was telling a group of undergraduates who were touring the Santa Fe Institute about the unexpected mathematical symmetries he had found while studying global terrorist attacks over the past four decades. Their professor made a comment that brought Clauset up short. “He was surprised that I could think about such a morbid topic in such a dry, scientific way,” Clauset recalls. “And I hadn’t even thought about that. It was just… I think in some ways, in order to do this, you have to separate yourself from the emotional aspects of it.”

    If the professor’s remark gave Clauset pause, it was the briefest instant of hesitation in a still-unfolding scientific career marked by a string of self-assured, virtuoso performances. At 31, he has published in fields as diverse as paleobiology, physics, computer science, artificial intelligence and statistics, spent four busy years as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute and secured a spot at a University of Colorado think tank.

    He also has the unusual distinction (at least for a scientist) of having once been a cast member on a reality television show.

    But it is his terrorism research that seems to be getting Clauset the most attention these days. He is one of a handful of U.S. and European scientists searching for universal patterns hidden in human conflicts—patterns that might one day allow them to predict long-term threats. Rather than study historical grievances, violent ideologies and social n...