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On his personal blog, Structure + Strangeness, Clauset posted a recap of 2012 based solely on statistics. Papers of his that were published or accepted: four. New citations of his past papers: 1,495. New research grants he was awarded: three, totaling $1,379,260. Pages of student work he graded: 5,282 (103 pages per student). Movies and shows he watched via Netflix: 132. Jigsaw pieces he assembled: more than 5,000. Houses he purchased with his wife, Lisa: one. Babies born to the two of them: one. Baby photos taken: 683.
"He's one of these people who looks at the world around him and asks interesting questions about it," says Mark Newman, a physics professor at the University of Michigan who's a friend and frequent academic collaborator. "A lot of people would see a video game and say, 'This is a fun game.' He thinks that, but he also says, 'There are really interesting scientific questions about this.'"
Clauset's analytical approach is in his blood: He was born in North Carolina to a schoolteacher father and a mother who worked on the computer systems that would become the basis for today's airline reservations systems. "Academic curiosity was just a given in the household," says his mother, Rebecca Harris. "We all liked learning new things. We all hated being idle and bored."
"Having two parents who were both scientifically minded was a huge thing for me," Clauset says. "They encouraged my curiosity without telling me what to be curious about."
Clauset's curiosity led him to pursue his undergraduate degree at Haverford College, a small liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania founded by Quakers. He planned to double-major in physics and sociology, but quickly realized that the latter's abstract, theoretical approach wasn't for him. "I became frustrated by the social sciences," he says. "They seemed squishy and focused on inherently ambiguous ideas. I wanted the mathematical rigor and predictive power that I saw in my physics classes. A clear and scientific explanation of how the social world worked." So he majored in physics with a concentration in computer science, fields deluged by a whole lot more hard data about hitherto "squishy" aspects of everyday life, thanks to the Internet and new technologies like cell phones. As noted in The Signal and the Noise, IBM calculates that the world is collectively generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data every day.
The Big Data flood is so great that some people believe it will eventually preclude the need for any scientific analysis at all. But others have the opposite opinion: that now, more than ever, the world needs people who can make sense of all of this information. And that's exactly what Clauset set out to do. "This is an exciting new direction for science," he says. "Learning how to understand these big piles of data. To work out the physics of society."
He decided to take a macro-level view of the data, working to find large-scale patterns that are often missed when researchers drill down into minutiae. This top-down strategy went against the sort of science that had dominated the twentieth century, with researchers tackling ever more specific areas of interest. But the complex systems that interested Clauset — systems like social networks and biological evolution and international relations — could never be fully understood by studying their pieces in isolation. "All of these systems are hard to understand," he says. "Taking them apart and studying their pieces one by one won't help you understand how the whole thing works."
Clauset's focus on big-picture data science led him to the University of New Mexico, where he obtained his Ph.D. in computer science. It's also where he met his future wife, Lisa Mullings, a nutrition educator. In 2006, he moved on to a post-doctoral fellowship at the nearby Santa Fe Institute, the nonprofit operation founded by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists to conduct interdisciplinary theoretical research. Since its start in 1984, the academic powerhouse has been integral in fields ranging from chaos theory to artificial intelligence.
Working at the institute "was like coming home," Clauset says. "Everyone there was intimidatingly intelligent, but open-minded and willing to talk to you about crazy ideas in a serious way." He found himself banging around crazy ideas on everything from conflict dynamics in primate societies to the social mechanisms of poverty to the physics of financial markets.
In 2010, Clauset moved to Boulder to take a computer-science professor slot at the new BioFrontiers Institute. The institute, housed in a 330,000-square-foot facility on CU-Boulder's east campus, is dedicated to cutting-edge research in bioscience and biotechnology that fuses the expertise of chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, engineers and faculty from other disparate disciplines. "I liked that they were really pushing the idea of lowering boundaries between disciplines," he says.
Clauset was well-suited to such an innovative, boundary-pushing environment. An academic who couldn't stand to watch violent movies and sometimes felt faint discussing gruesome accidents, he'd decided on a whim to delve into a subject in which he had no background whatsoever: terrorism.
His trip into terrorism started in early 2003 with a series of heated student listserv discussions on the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Everyone on the forum seemed to be arguing about what was known about the situation, what was unknown, and how it was all connected to the War on Terror. It was exactly the kind of squishy, imprecise dialogue that rankled Clauset, so he wondered if he could nail down some of the issues with data.