Email, Einstein, and the presence of power laws

Email, Einstein, and the presence of power laws

Albert-László Barabási shows that no matter what we think about our spontaneity, randomness does not rule our lives:

At first sight, we would not expect our e-mail patterns to show any similarities. Some people send only a few e-mails a week; others close to a hundred each day; some peek at their e-mail only once a day. Still others practically sleep with their computers. This is why it was surprising that, when it comes to e-mail, everybody appears to follow exactly the same pattern. Indeed, looking at the times between e-mails, no one obeyed a Poisson distribution. Instead, no matter the person, their behaviour followed what we call a “power law”.


[A] power law predicts that most e-mails are sent within a few minutes of one other, appearing as a burst of activity in our e-mailing pattern. But the power law also foresees hours or even days of e-mail silence. In the end, the patterns of our e-mailing follow an inner harmony, where short and long delays mix into a precise law — a law that you probably never suspected you were subject to, that you never made an effort to obey, and that you most likely never even knew existed in the first place.

Einstein himself, Barabási’s studies showed, exhibited this “burstiness,” even though he averaged more than one letter written per day, weekends, included, over the course of his adult life. I like this though: hours or even days of email silence as “inner harmony,” rather than words others might be using as they wait for you to respond.