I had a piece in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe this weekend about understanding the nature of empires and civilizations, seen through the lens of mathematics, entitled How Long Will America Last? An impossible question, answered with math:
With all the chatter about the rise of China, our possible economic collapse, and climate change, it is little wonder that Americans might be growing preoccupied with our nation’s staying power. Is the rise of the United States a fleeting moment in world history, or simply the beginning of many centuries of American ascendancy?
It might seem like a question for pundits to argue over, pessimists against optimists. But there is another way to answer the question as well: with some data.
History is filled with examples of powers much like America?—?nations whose wealth and influence allowed them outsized effects on the world. In the past, they were empires; America doesn’t usually see itself that way, but its wealth and influence put it in this peer group. And once we place it there, we can look at the lifetimes of lots of empires, see how long they’ve lasted, and use this to gain a bit of insight into our American situation.
This kind of approach, using a quantitative approach to understand history, is part of what has recently begun to be called cliodynamics. The field of cliodynamics?—?a term coined by the mathematician, biologist, and social scientist Peter Turchin from the name Clio, the muse of history?—?uses mathematics to understand the shape of history, and has been around for centuries. With a pedigree dating back to such approaches as that of Francis Galton, a relative of Darwin, who used math to understand the extinction of Victorian aristocratic surnames, a cliodynamic approach can be used to understand the ebb and flow of entire civilizations on a grand scale. Now, with the advent of the digitization of vast amounts of data, we can apply a certain precision to history that wasn’t possible before.
So that’s what I set out to do.