VIDEO: Danny Abrams Uses Math to Explain Human Behavior

Danny Abrams, assistant professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics, uses mathematical tools to explain phenomena such as synchronized fireflies, language death, and obesity.

“I’m trying to find examples where mathematical models have potential to pinpoint the way a system of humans behaves,” he says.

Of the more than 6,000 languages in the world today, most will die with the people who now speak them. Why are so many languages death-bound? Many people point to increased travel and contact between cultures and a greater ability to communicate across language lines. Abrams’s approach to the subject is through dual-language cultures, where there is generally a minority language and a majority language and where, as a model that Abrams created shows, only one can survive.

“My model treats languages as though they are competing for speakers,” Abrams says. “It shows there is a tipping point where the system goes to one language. It gives some insight into why this is happening all over the world.”

Abrams is working on a model of competition between religious and nonreligious groups using census records from nine different countries. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that Americans who don’t identify with any particular religious group are the fastest growing religious minority. In the Netherlands, those who affiliate with a religion are now in the minority. Using his language competition model as a basis, Abrams has preliminary results that show how religious affiliation can shift.

Abrams’s research has branched out into other areas of human experience, such as obesity. Obesity rates in the United States stand at 30 percent, and recent studies show that the chance of an individual’s becoming obese strongly correlates with obesity rates of his or her social network. Abrams hopes to create a model that shows how biological and social factors affect the way a person’s weight changes over time.

“As computers and simulation become more widespread in science, it remains important to create understandable mathematical models of the phenomena that interest us,” Abrams said. “By discarding unnecessary elements, these simple models can give us insight into the most important aspects of a problem, sometimes even shedding light on things—like human behavior—that are seemingly outside the domain of math.”

Read a McCormick Magazine article on Abrams.

Video by Matthew Dalzell and Emily Ayshford. Music by Patrick O’Malley.