Posted by Rob Knies

Duncan Watts

John Cleese, the acclaimed Monty Python actor, spent time as an A.D. White Professor-at-Large. So did renowned primatologist Jane Goodall. And Oliver Sacks, noted author and neurologist. And epic novelist Toni Morrison. And short-story writer Eudora Welty.

Add to that esteemed list the name of Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft Research New York City. On May 6, Watts’ name joined the roster of honorees for that Cornell University program, established in 1965 in conjunction with the university’s centenary and named for the school’s co-founder and first president, Andrew Dickson White.

“The A.D. White program brings some of the world’s most distinguished scholars, thinkers, and artists to Cornell as ‘professors-at-large,’” said Steven H Strogatz, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell. “We’re thrilled that Duncan Watts will be joining the ranks of such luminaries.”

A.D. White professors are appointed with a single mandate: to enliven the intellectual and cultural life of the university. They are chosen for a six-year term—which, in Watts’ case, means through June 2019—and are considered full members of the Cornell faculty. Currently, there are 19 active professors-at-large in the program.

“Duncan was chosen for this honor because he is a world-renowned scholar whose research launched ‘the new science of networks’ that has transformed the social and behavioral sciences and captured the public imagination,” said Michael Walton Macy, Goldwin Smith Professor of Sociology at Cornell. “His innovative applications of network analysis to the study of human behavior and social interaction have led him to become one of the most prominent and respected social scientists in the world. He is also a gifted writer and charismatic speaker who can make these scientific advances come to life for a popular audience.”

The A.D. White honor came as little surprise to Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research New York City.

“Duncan is one of the pre-eminent sociologists of his generation,” Chayes said. “What I find most exciting about his work is the way he combines the best of sociology and computation—asking well-posed and important sociological questions and using deep statistical methods to analyze the data. He never goes for pat answers; he probes until he understands what the data is trying to say, in all its complexity.”

Watts, of course, finds such testimonials flattering, but there is another reason why the appointment means a lot to him.

“First, it’s a huge honor to be included among so many luminaries,” he said. “And second, it’s particularly special to be so honored by my alma mater, which is where I did my work with Steve Strogatz on small-world networks, for which I’m probably still best-known.

“To be honest, at the time, I think nobody knew what to make of it, so it’s very gratifying to have Cornell, of all places, recognize the work.”

Watts was one of five new A.D. White Professors-at-Large whose appointments were announced May 6. The others:

  • Nima Arkani-Hamed, theoretical physicist and professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study, based in Princeton, N.J.
  • David Hillis, an evolutionary biologist and Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor in Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
  • Laurie Marker, cheetah expert and founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
  • Andrew Revkin, science reporter and author, who has been covering the environment for The New York Times since 1995.

Watts possesses sterling credentials, as well. He holds a B.Sc. in physics from the Australian Defence Force Academy, where he also received an officer’s commission in the Royal Australian Navy. He then obtained a Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell. He was a professor of sociology at Columbia University from 2000 to 2007, and then directed the Human Social Dynamics group at Yahoo! Research. In addition, Watts has served on the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and is a visiting fellow at Columbia and at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield College.

The White professorship includes certain responsibilities, and Watts foresees himself being quite engaged in his new role.

“The minimal commitment is not that onerous,” Watts said, “just two visits to the Ithaca [N.Y.] campus for one week each over the course of six years, during which I might give a public lecture, teach some smaller classes, and meet with faculty and students.

“But my understanding is that many A.D. White professors spend considerably more time than that on campus, and given my deep ties and close physical proximity to Ithaca, I expect that I will, too.”

Watts’ research on social networks and collective dynamics has been published in such publications as Nature, Science, the American Journal of Sociology, and the Harvard Business Review. He also has written three books:

“His contributions extend well beyond network science and research on social influence,” Macy said. “A good case could be made that Everything Is Obvious should be required summer reading for every student entering college, so that they are sensitized to explanations that make ‘common sense’ but which do not stand up to careful scrutiny.”

True to his word, last year, Macy included Everything Is Obvious in his Six Pretty Good Books course, co-taught with psychology professor Steve Ceci, which is being turned into a massive open online course this year.

For Watts, though, in addition to the professional achievement the White appointment recognizes, it also represents a homecoming of sorts.

“Aside from the chance to reconnect with some of my favorite colleagues—Steve Strogatz, Michael Macy, Jon Kleinberg, and Bob Frank, among others—I’m looking forward to spending time on the campus itself.

“Some of my fondest memories are of wandering around Cornell lost in thought, trying to figure out the right question. I don’t have nearly as much time to do that sort of thing these days, which is fine, of course, and probably inevitable, but I’m really hoping to relive that experience, even if just for a bit.”