Maths Meets Myths: research from the statistical physics group at Coventry University
Statistical Physics Groups
Was Beowulf real? Is Game of Thrones more fact than fiction? And what has this got to do with physics?
A ground-breaking research project undertaken at Coventry University has been examining social structures in some of the world’s best-known myths and legends to investigate how much of their content is based on real-life patterns of relationships.
Ancient narratives and historical myths have been a topic for academic debate for many years – but largely in the fields of humanities and literature.
However Coventry University physicists have turned this perception on its head by studying relationships between large casts of characters in epic texts and sagas. By viewing these as complex systems, they have used data analysis and statistical physics to create visualisations of these societies and compared them with other texts, ultimately exploring how far the communities they describe are potentially authentic in terms of their social structures.
Six Degrees of Separation
Just as the popular ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ theory centres on the idea that most people are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other, the Maths Meets Myths researchers connect characters in the narratives and examine the visual configurations, to see if they adhere to patterns expected in real-life social structures. They have examined texts from around the world as part of the study. These include works purportedly by third century poet Ossian, the Icelandic Sagas and other Viking texts. And good news for Viking fans – they found that the Icelandic myths were based most closely on reality. This stands in contrast to relationships analysed in wholly fictitious texts, such as Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings. Social structures based on real-life relationships have tell-tale characteristics.
For example, in most real-world networks, a high proportion of a person's acquaintances are also acquainted with each other. When this, and other patterns, is seen in myths it can be indicative of a real-life social structure.
By quantifying narratives through statistical physics they can be measurably compared and conclusions can be drawn about which are based most closely on authentic social structures.
This is a new way and exciting way of looking at physics and maths and we would like to showcase it with primary and secondary school children to inspire them in science. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The statistical model has been used to map relationships in project management for project optimisation. The method allows industry to see the big picture and helps identify improvements to enhance an entire system rather than individual parts. To find out more email the team for more information.
Coventry City of Culture
We will be organising cultural events based on Maths Meets Myths as part of Coventry City of Culture. Please email for more information.
Maths Meets Myths is a new way of using statistical physics in connection with humanities. It aims to:
- Trace commonalities and differences between characters in myths and legends across cultures
- Visualise networks to see nuances in organisations and social systems
- Empowers people to see which characters or relationships can have the greatest effect on others