Addressing Threats and Vulnerabilities in Critical Interconnected Systems: Common Principles in Disease Outbreaks, Internet Malware, and Bank Failures

Photo credit: Scavone Photography

On June 13, the AMS, together with MSRI hosted another in its series of biannual Congressional Briefings, with that title. Our presenter was Jon Kleinberg, the Tisch University Professor of Computer Science and Information Science at Cornell University. Introductory remarks were made by MSRI Director David Eisenbud, AMS President Jill Pipher, and me.

Dr. Kleinberg’s research focuses on issues at the interface of networks and information, with an emphasis on the social and information networks like the Web and other social media platforms.[1]

It was a great presentation. This is the fifth of these I’ve run and I am starting to feel guilty about saying they are each great. But, each one has been great. We’ve had

  • David Donoho talk about compressed sensing and MRI technology,
  • Shafi Goldwasser on cryptography and privacy,
  • Eric Demaine on the many practical applications of folding,
  • Rodolfo Torres on Fourier analysis and nanomaterials, and now
  • Jon Kleinberg on networks and highly connected systems.

Man, they’ve been good.

In the many months leading up to each briefing, David Eisenbud and I work with the speaker, developing their talk for this special audience, ensuring that it conveys content of interest and also the message we want lawmakers to hear–robust, dependable, and sustained federal investment in basic research in mathematical sciences pays off for American taxpayers and helps the nation remain a world leader in innovation. On the former, of course these speakers are all incredibly excellent communicators (one reason they are chosen) and some of them have already presented to Congress. We prep them on everything from who to expect in the room and what these people might be wearing, to avoid partisan topics in the Q & A period (in this case we thought discussion of the current measles outbreak could lead to vaccination discussions), and that “when we say ‘no formulas on your slides,’ we really mean it!” Jon Kleinberg’s very first slide (after the title slide) showed the Washington DC Metro Map. This really is a nice visualization and helped the audience feel at ease and assured them that–if they pay attention–they will be able to follow this talk (here is a big generalization: this is something we are not so good at in math, helping our listeners feel like we actually want them there).


Dr. Kleinberg was successful in showing how mathematicians and computer scientists think about abstract networks and how general approaches developed in graph theory can be used to approach problems in many areas of congressional concern. How do we identify the most critical nodes in a network? The most vulnerable edges? He talked about protecting our electric grid (a network we want to protect), and controlling the spread of disease (a network we want to disrupt).

One application that I think the audience really appreciated focused on using mathematical ideas to find early indications that (parts of) our large banking system may fail. He showed a nice slide illustrating that certain types of data only show an immediate threat, whereas a more heterogeneous collection of data shows fragility in the system earlier, and how the spread amplifies as the trouble spreads. Finding earlier signals could have prevented the great recession of a decade ago, or at least given forewarning and thus we could have worked to minimize its devastation.

He also discussed online social networks, and how information spreads over the internet; issues important in DC as we approach another election and examine the role social media played in our last presidential election.

If you are inspired to learn more, you can check out his book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World, which is based on an inter-disciplinary course that he teaches to undergraduates, requiring no formal prerequisites.

Representative Haley Stevens’s office secured the room for our briefing, and helped with logistics. We are very grateful for this assistance.

Photo credit: Scavone Photography

Our spring/summer briefings are fun because there are so many interns spending the summer working in Congress, and we usually have a pretty good show of them in the room. This one was no different and several of them asked great questions. Interns are normally college students (who are not math majors) and I feel good that they will go back to campus, having heard a great math talk, in Congress. I don’t think many college students (or many Americans more generally, if I have to be honest) think about the importance of mathematics in so many areas of concern for the health of our nation. I hope they go back to campus with a positive attitude about the beauty and power of mathematics.

Our next briefing will take place in December, and AMS President Jill Pipher will be our presenter. I’m excited already!


[1] His work has been supported by an NSF Career Award, an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Packard Foundation Fellowship, a Simons Investigator Award, a Sloan Foundation Fellowship, and grants from Facebook, Google, Yahoo, the MacArthur Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the NSF. He is a recipient of the Association of Computing Machinery’s Prize in Computing and the Nevanlinna Prize from the International Mathematical Union. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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