A systems biologist looks at basketball games through the prism of graph theory
Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”
Have you ever looked at a diagram of a network, with its circles and lines connecting them? The circles are called “nodes,” and the lines are called “links,” or “edges.”
Have you ever looked at the diagram from a playbook in a sport like basketball? They share some similarities. If you draw circles for the players and then draw a line for every time the ball is passed from one to the other over the course of a complete play, you get something that looks quite a bit like a network diagram.
That insight, or something like it, seems to have been the inspiration for a clever and fun mathematical research paper. “Basketball Teams as Strategic Networks” is its name, and it was published by the open-access online journal PLOS ONE back in November.
Network theory has been around since the 1700s, but with the rise of the Internet, it’s become tremendously important. It can explain the winner-take-most popularity of our largest websites, how information spreads through a cocktail party, and the strong and weak social ties through which most of us will get our next job. Maybe it was inevitable someone would use it to see which style of basketball play—get-the-ball-to-the-point-guard, or a more distributed passing game—is more successful.
My guest today is the lead author of “Basketball Teams as Strategic Networks,” Jennifer Fewell. She’s a professor at Arizona State University, where, among other things, she studies ant colonies as self-organizing networks. She joins us by phone.
Jennifer, welcome to the podcast.