Evolving as a Humanist
Born into a family of scientists, mathematicians and intellectuals, Yaneer was predestined for a
career in math and science.
He was born on August 29, 1959 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 Connecticut and then
Pittsburgh, eventually moving to Brookline, Massachusetts, to study at MIT and Harvard and to
raise their three children — Aureet, Yaneer and Sageet.
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, public health and pandemics, including Ebola and COVID-19.
Zvi was a groundbreaking particle physicist and professor, trained at Carnegie Institute of
Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and MIT. And Miriam, educated at Harvard
University, was a renowned authority on child developmental psychology, specializing in moral
development. Zvi taught Yaneer mathematics and science even as his son was learning how to
It was a joyous childhood, recalls Yaneer. “My mother believed in me. Still, 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.” “Aureet taught me everything she learned in
school,” says Yaneer
One day, as an elementary school student at Michael Driscoll School, in Brookline, Mass., Yaneer
saw 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, swollen-bellied children touched Yaneer deeply and propelled him to make
technology and economic development one of the pillars of his lifelong study of complex systems,
offering real world, practical solutions to a pernicious problem.
As a boy, Yaneer enjoyed math, chess, piano, art, swimming and gymnastics, winning trophies
and best performances. Naturally gifted, Yaneer finished high school in three years and
graduated from MIT after two years of study in 1978 at the age of 18.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in physics, he continued in the graduate physics program
at MIT and was awarded his Ph.D. in 1984.
An unexpected conversation took Yaneer on an entirely new trajectory in his career.
1984 – 1987 Yaneer may have continued on his academic path had it not been for a lecture he delivered in
1984 on his research in theoretical physics. After his presentation, Yaneer asked an IBM engineer
in attendance whether he had found the talk helpful. “No,” the scientist replied, bluntly adding
that Yaneer’s analysis had no practical impact on his applied work. Shocked by the negative
comment, Yaneer decided to return to the fundamentals of science, something that would,
ironically, give him the mathematical foundation to analyze some of our world’s most complex
problems. It was a turning point in his life.
He continued his research as a joint postdoctoral fellow at MIT and IBM
A Life-Changing Decision
“Since I couldn’t influence practical applications, I turned to study fundamental scientific issues.
I focused on the questions that I cared about,” he says. “Changing direction freed me up from
the constraints of what I’d been doing. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was the
fundamental advances that would end up being the key to practical applications.”
1987 — 1991
Over the next decade, Yaneer held academic positions at the Weizmann Institute of Science
(1988-1991) and Cornell University (1989), and he joined the faculty of Boston University as an
associate professor of engineering (1991-1997). His research addressed a diverse array of topics
including the science of growing diamonds, the workings of neural networks, polymers, social
systems and biological evolution.
What seemed like many disparate topicsto others seemed the same to Yaneer. When a colleague
said to him “You’re working on many different things,” he responded, “No I’m not. They’re all the
same.” The key for Yaneer was understanding how the different parts work together.
His major contributions to the field of complex systems included the development of analytical
tools that became universally applicable in the study of diverse complex systems. Also, his
multiscale approach — to how the parts of systems interconnect and interact with their
surroundings — would become part of the core of the scientific theory of complex systems.
But he found his true passion identifying the complex causes and solutions for 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 lost the beloved sister who had tutored him in the magic of mathematics when he
was a young boy.
Yaneer uses an innovative discipline of subterranean mathematical calculation to identify the
important variables to explain a problem and predict solutions and, more importantly catalyze
change in 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.
To carry out his examination of complex systems, he turned to the principles of “renormalization
group,” developed in 1970 by physicist Ken Wilson, who received the Nobel Prize for his work.
“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 a logical step-by-step process,” says Yaneer. “When you
know math well, that’s 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. Once the right equations are formulated, the answers to your questions are in the
Redoubling his efforts to make a tangible difference through science, Yaneer founded the New
England Complex Science Institute in 1996, a multidisciplinary consortium of top academics.
Serving as president since 1997, Yaneer has attracted an illustrious community of international
experts in complex systems science and related fields from Harvard, MIT, Yale and elsewhere
working together to study problems through science and modelling.
Over time, the field of complex systems science pioneered by Yaneer and others was dramatically
expanding the tools and applications of science. Meanwhile, fundamental developments in
mathematical frameworks fostered the ability to solve practical problems. New understandings
of the fundamentals of math and science enabled practical solutions. The universal applicability
of the new tools manifested in problem solving across a wide range of biological, medical, social,
engineering and management domains.
Leading the Field
Yaneer had a prolific decade, publishing three books and more than 200 scientific papers
Yaneer published his first book, a textbook, “Dynamics of Complex Systems,” in 1997 while
continuing to lecture around the world, publishing more than 200 scientific papers 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.
In 1997, Yaneer published an article, showing that the notion that altruism only happens because
we share “selfish genes” is “fatally flawed,” because the underlying mathematical assumptions
of this argument were wrong. He explored these themes deeper and argued that, in fact,
cooperation is fostered through competition, and competition relies on cooperation, coexisting
as a mutually reinforcing combination rather than in opposition.
As chair of the International Conference on Complex Systems, Yaneer has led an annual gathering
of complex systems 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 explained some of the principles of complex systems in a 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, reflected his journey into developing and understanding the so-called
“complexity profile,” quantifying the “relationship between independence interdependence, and
the scale of collective behavior.”
Yaneer published his second book, “Making Things Work,” applied complex systems science to
solving problems in healthcare, education, systems engineering, international development, and
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 National Science Foundation, the United Nations, the World Health
Organization, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the National Counterterrorism
Center, 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
Data-Driven Decision Making
In 2007, Yaneer coauthored an article, “Global pattern formation and ethnic/cultural violence,”
using complex systems science to understand how to accurately predict, and ultimately avoid,
When officials at the United Nations and in the U.S. government later approached Yaneer for
help, he welcomed 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 2008 economic crisis. Later, Yaneer advised the U.S. intelligence
and defense communities on the root causes of global political instability.
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. In each case, he identified scientific insights to support sound
policies and actions to address major humanitarian challenges
Notably, his 2006 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. This work identified globalization and the
proliferation of travel as possible existential threats to the world, for example, rapidly spreading
local epidemics into worldwide pandemics, leading to the extinction of human beings.
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.
Yaneer did some of his most ground-breaking mathematical modeling and predicted that a
growing food crisis would lead to violence and political instability –making these predictions
before the Arab Spring when unrest roiled North Africa and the Middle East, 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.
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 meet with the 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 Warren Buffet’s grandson, and Yaneer’s wife, Naomi, a constant support in his
life and work. At that dinner, he emotionally recounted to his World Food Program hosts his
unforgettable memories of the 1967 Nigerian famine, and it was there 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 of 2011 and listed
his scientific visualizations “Best of” that year.
His contributions to the application of complex systems science 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
Vice’s Motherboard also recognized Yaneer’s work as “Best of” in 2013.
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, ABC News,
Canada’s CTV, RT, BBC Radio, NPR radio and Vice, among others.
Embarking on a New Mission
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. His approach,
including community-based early case detection and travel restrictions, was successfully applied
in Liberia and later in Sierra Leone to stop the outbreak at about 10,000 deaths, many fewer than
the millions of deaths epidemiological models predicted. As he worked to convince high-level
policy makers, the communities started implementing a similar strategy on the ground with
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.
“Good science is not surprising,” says Yaneer. “It should match our understanding of the world.
Science describes the world we know. The fundamental lessons we learn, however, are widely
applicable. For example, the theory of gravity describes both a ball’s trajectory and that of the
moon across the sky. Similarly, understanding principles of stopping a disease can be applied to
many diseases in different contexts even when the specifics are different.” He continued to
advise U.S and international leaders and organizations on pandemic risk and measures to halt
virus outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, organizing community efforts there.
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.
Yaneer, building on his decades of expertise on pandemics, co-authored a paper with “Black
Swan” author Nassim Taleb in January 2020, 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.
Soon after, 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 research, communication, outreach and policy recommendations.
March 2020 — Current
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, 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, Ireland and Australia, 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
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
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.
May 7, 2020
The human toll of the pandemic became starkly personal. The next day, he wrote, “I have lost my
mother to COVID,” he wrote on Twitter. “May her light shine bright forever in the places that
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.”
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- © 2020 Yaneer Bar-Yam