Compassionate Science for Humanity
“Since time immemorial, humans have complained that life is becoming more complex. But it is only now that we have a hope to analyze formally and verify this lament.”
— Yaneer Bar-Yam
Yaneer Bar-Yam personifies a unique alchemy of heart and intellect. He has the mind of a world-renowned physicist and mathematician with the ethos of a humanitarian. Yaneer has pioneered the field of complex systems, studying the interconnectedness of how our world works for the benefit of humanity. As the founder and president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, he gets to the bottom of some of the world’s most complicated problems through applied research and unique mathematical modeling. His widely cited and impactful work spans energy markets, global supply chains, economic and financial crises, military strategy, political instability, neuroscience, cell biology, public health and pandemics, including Ebola and COVID-19.
Evolving as a Humanist
Born into a family of brilliant scientists, mathematicians and intellectuals, Yaneer was predestined for a career in math and science.
He was born on August 29, at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. His father, Zvi Bar-Yam, was born in Kraków, Poland, where he lived through the tragedy chronicled in the book and movie, “Schindler’s List.” As a survivor of the Holocaust, Zvi emigrated to Israel, where he met Yaneer’s mother, Miriam. They immigrated to the United States to initially study in Pittsburgh and then Connecticut, eventually moving to Brookline, Massachusetts, to raise their three children — Aureet, Yaneer and Sageet.
Zvi was a groundbreaking particle physicist and professor, trained at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT. And Miriam, educated at Harvard University, was a world-renowned authority on child developmental psychology. Zvi taught Yaneer mathematics even as his son was learning how to walk.
It was a joyous childhood, recalls Yaneer. “My mother believed in me. She made sure that I didn’t feel that I was better than others.” says Yaneer. “My father told me I don’t have to do everything. I just have to make a contribution.” He was close to his older sister, Aureet, and younger sister, Sageet. “Aureet taught me everything she knew in school,” says Yaneer.
One day in 1967, as an elementary student at Michael Driscoll School, in Brookline, Mass., Yaneer saw on television devastating images from halfway around the world that, unbeknownst to him, would become pivotal in charting the course of his life and work. The images were of starving children who were victims of the Nigerian civil war for the independence of a region called Biafra. Those images of wide-eyed, pot-bellied children touched Yaneer deeply and propelled him to make food security one of the pillars of his lifelong study of complex systems, offering real world, practical solutions to a pernicious problem.
Yaneer could have been anything he wanted to be. He loved math, science and chess, trained in piano and swam competitively, excelling in virtually everything he did.
Naturally gifted, Yaneer finished high school in three years and graduated from MIT in 1978 after two years of study at the age of 18.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in physics, he pursued applied physics at MIT and was awarded his Ph.D in 1984.
Making a Life-Changing Decision
An unexpected conversation took Yaneer on an entirely new trajectory in his career.
Yaneer may have continued on his academic path had it not been for a lecture he delivered on his research in theoretical physics. After his presentation, Yaneer asked an IBM scientist in attendance whether he had found the talk helpful. “No,” the scientist replied, bluntly adding that Yaneer’s analysis had zero practical impact on his applied work. Shocked by the negative review, Yaneer knew that he had to pivot and focus on meaningful, tangible outcomes from his research. It was a turning point in his life.
Fascinated by the emerging theory of complex systems – a rarefied, multidisciplinary study of how the parts of systems interconnect and collectively interact with their surroundings, Yaneer decided to apply his interest and physics training to find practical applications and real world solutions, becoming a joint postdoctoral fellow at MIT and IBM.
Over the next decade, Yaneer held academic positions at the Weizmann Institute of Science and Cornell University, and he joined the faculty of Boston University as an associate professor of engineering.
His research addressed a diverse array of topics including the science of growing diamonds, the workings of neural networks and the underlying causes of climate change. But he found his true passion identifying the complex causes of global tragedies, such as food crises.
As a young academic, Yaneer experienced tragedy when his older sister, Aureet, died on January 7, 1991, at the age of 33, drowning as she tried to pull her dog, Flame, out of the icy water of Sandy Pond in Lincoln, Mass. Authorities botched the rescue effort in a long, drawn out series of failures. He not only lost a beloved sister but also a kindred spirit who had tutored him in the magic of mathematics when he was a young boy.
As a complex systems practitioner, Yaneer uses an innovative discipline of subterranean mathematical calculation to explain and predict global trends, such as food scarcity, ethnic cleansing, evolutionary biology, election outcomes, and pandemics, including COVID-19.
“It’s the narrative of math. It’s all rooted in an understanding of multiscale analysis,” says Yaneer, who turned to Nobel Prize Laureate mathematician Ken Wilson’s 1970s principles of “renormalization group” to carry out his examination of complex systems.
“Everybody studies in school how to use math. You have a set of equations, or you have an assumption. What can you prove? It’s set theory geometry,” says Yaneer. “When you know math really well, that’s really easy. The challenging part is making sure you have the right assumptions That’s the only thing that really matters. If you have the right assumption you can get the right conclusion.”
Redoubling his efforts to make a tangible difference through applied science, Yaneer founded the New England Complex Science Institute in 1996. The institute is a multidisciplinary consortium of top academics who apply systems modeling and research to solve real-world problems.
Yaneer has attracted an illustrious community of international experts in complex science and related fields from Harvard, MIT, Yale and elsewhere working together to solve problems through applied science and modelling.
Leading the Field
Yaneer had a prolific decade, publishing three books and more than 200 scientific papers.
Yaneer published his first book in 1997, a textbook, “Dynamics of Complex Systems,” while continuing to lecture around the world and creating an internationally recognized body of work with some of the top minds in the field. He holds four patents for some of his groundbreaking research.
As chair of the International Conference on Complex Systems, Yaneer has led an annual gathering of complex science experts for more than two decades. Through his Institute, he has published hundreds of expert presentations and papers on evolution, emergence, complexity, self-organization, scaling, informatics, time series, emergence of mind and engineering of complex systems.
Yaneer also has served as a visiting scientist at MIT Media Lab and a Visiting Scholar at both the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Yaneer explored some of the principles of Complex Systems in a 2002 paper titled, “Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Civilization, a Complexity Profile.” “Since time immemorial, humans have complained that life is becoming more complex,” the paper began, “but it is only now that we have a hope to analyze formally and verify this lament.”
The paper, Yaneer said, was a journey into developing and understanding the so-called “complexity profile,” quantifying the “relationship between independence interdependence, and the scale of collective behavior.”
In 2004, Yaneer published his second book, “Making Things Work,” applied complex systems science to solving problems in healthcare, education, systems engineering, international development, and ethnic conflict.
His contributions to the field of applied complex science theory began to draw the attention of major institutions and world figures. Yaneer was invited to present his research and its applications to the World Bank Institute, the National Science Foundation and the United Nations among others.
His work has received grants from the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Bank. Yaneer has lectured widely on his research before numerous universities and foreign governments, as well as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the National Counterterrorism Center, among others.
Championing Data-Driven Decision Making
As the world grew increasingly more complex with the proliferation of global travel, Yaneer continued to apply his expertise to tackling global challenges like food insecurity, financial systems, terrorism and pandemics.
Notably, in 2006, his work with a graduate student, Erik Rauch, analyzing how international human travel and livestock transport impacted pandemics broke new ground in pandemic modelling. Yaneer completed his student’s work after Rauch fell to his death in a hiking accident in California’s Sequoia National Park at the age of 31.
When officials at the United Nations and in the U.S. government later approached Yaneer for help in 2008, he eagerly accepted the challenge to help policymakers address global crises through complex systems analysis. The chairman of the U.S. Senate Financial Services Committee, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) enlisted Yaneer’s aid in understanding and predicting the workings of world financial systems amid the economic crisis. Later, Yaneer advised the U.S. intelligence and defense communities on the root causes of global political instability.
Expanding His Contribution
Yaneer did some of his most ground-breaking mathematical modeling and predicted that a growing food crisis would politically destabilize the Middle East.
In 2010, he went so far as to predict what came to be known as the Arab Spring long before unrest roiled the region toppling governments and sparking political violence. He earned international recognition for his predictive work, which was cited in publications around the world. Yaneer later advised President Obama’s chief defense policy advisor, Air Force Colonel Troy Thomas, on Egypt’s continuing political revolution and the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently publishes his analysis to wide acclaim with his findings cited by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and BBC among many other outlets.
Yaneer’s research on the dynamics leading to world food insecurity also garnered interest from global leaders and international organizations. He was invited to speak before the World Economic Forum in Davos and United Nations World Food Program on his key findings that agricultural policies in the developed world, especially the United States, had drastically disrupted global food supply chains and led to the unrest. At a dinner at the World Food Program’s summit, he sat alongside Archbishop Desmond Tutu, investment mogul and philanthropist Warren Buffet and his wife, Naomi, a constant support in his life and work. It was at that dinner, as he emotionally recounted to the illustrious guests his unforgettable memories of the 1967 Nigerian famine that Yaneer came to fully understand just how deeply those latent memories had impacted his life's work.
Yaneer’s work on food insecurity has earned accolades and recognition around the world.
In 2011, Wired Magazine named Yaneer’s work among top scientific discoveries and listed his scientific visualizations “Best of” that year. Two years later, in 2013, Vice’s Motherboard also recognized Yaneer’s work as “Best of.”
His research findings have been cited by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Die Zeit, Le Monde, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, Scientific American, Wired, Fast Company, Forbes, Slate, Mother Jones, Scientific-American, ABC News, Canada’s CTV, RT, BBC Radio, NPR Radio and Vice among others.
Embarking on a New Mission
When the Ebola crisis began unfolding in West Africa in 2014, Yaneer quickly tapped his earlier work on global travel and pandemics and recognized a fundamental problem: what seemed like a local outbreak could have global repercussions. He turned his focus to finding a solution.
Building on his earlier work on pandemics, Yaneer applied his complex systems research to find a way to end the outbreak. Partnering with international organizations and frontline workers, he developed mathematical models for arresting and eradicating the disease in Sierra Leone through containment, early detection and direct interventions. When the outbreak emerged in nearby Liberia the next year, Yaneer helped successfully apply that knowledge to slow and end the outbreak. He continued to advise U.S and international leaders and organizations on the pandemic risk and measures to halt the virus.
Launching a Movement
More recently, Yaneer has turned his attention to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a deeply personal crusade, having lost his mother to the deadly virus early in the pandemic.
In January 2020, building on his decades of expertise on pandemics, Yaneer co-authored a paper with “Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb, becoming one of the first pandemic experts to advise policymakers to limit international and domestic travel and take precautionary measures to slow the spread of the virus.
Simultaneously, Yaneer also launched EndCoronavirus.org, a collaboration of more than 4,000 scientists, students, community leaders and other volunteers dedicated to eradicating COVID-19 through applied systems research.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, he has worked around the clock and across time zones to educate policy makers to help save lives, published op-eds with CNN and USA Today, advised leaders throughout the globe from Arizona to Israel and Ireland, recommending short but strict five-week phased lockdowns as a measured, localized, community based intervention to ending the pandemic.
Through his decades of rigorous research into complex systems such as wars, famines, pestilence, food scarcity, and pandemics, if there’s one thing Yaneer has learned, it’s this:
miscalculating the root causes of problems invariably results in flawed, even tragic, outcomes.
“Wrong assumptions lead to wrong solutions,” says Yaneer. “The consequences are budgets squandered, years wasted, lives lost. The benefits of correct assumptions leading to tailored solutions are priceless. And you can only find the correct assumptions by starting with the right questions.”
In April 2020, Yaneer co-authors the paper, “COVID-19: How to Win," with scientist Chen Shen expanding on his recommendations to fight the virus. Yaneer consults with European governments on effective coronavirus response.
The next month, CNN.com publishes Bar-Yam’s op-ed warning that the state lockdown measures are insufficient, correctly predicting a summer resurgence of the virus. Yaneer helps to draft a petition to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on behalf of hundreds of scientists and state residents calling for more urgent action against COVID-19.
On May 7, 2020, the human toll of the pandemic became starkly personal. That day, he wrote, “I have lost my mother to COVID,” he wrote on Twitter. “May her light shine bright forever in the places that truly matter.”
Yaneer reflected on the legacy of his mother, who had shaped his moral conscience as a scientist. “She taught me the meaning of the space of possibilities,” he wrote. “Aspiration never for self but always for improving the world for everyone. She gave me my responsibility.”