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The importance of being modular

Marta Sales-Pardo

In the 1970s, ecologists began to speculate that modular systems—which are organized into blocks or modules—can better contain perturbations and are therefore more resilient against external damage. This simple concept can be applied to any networked system, be it an ecosystem, cellular metabolism, traffic flows, human disease contagion, a power grid, or an economy. However, experimental evidence has been lacking. On page 199 of this issue, Gilarranz et al. provide empirical evidence showing that modular networked systems do indeed have an advantage over nonmodular systems when faced with external perturbations.

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[...] Gilarranz et al. also show that the capacity to contain perturbations comes with a cost. The more modular the system, the larger the overall population in the presence of even strong perturbations, but that is not the case in the absence of a perturbation. In the latter case, the overall population levels are higher in nonmodular systems. These results not only align with theoretical expectations, they also help explain the largescale organization of complex systems. [...]


Science, Vol. 357, No. 6347. (14 July 2017), pp. 128-129, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aan8075 
Key: INRMM:14392760

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