More recently, laboratory experiments suggest that Zipf's power-law structure also applies to a range of natural systems, from the protein sequences of immune receptors in cells to the intensity of solar flares from the sun.
"It's interesting when you see the same phenomenon in systems that are so diverse. It makes you wonder," Nemenman says.
Scientists have pondered the mystery of Zipf's law for decades. Some studies have managed to reveal how a feature of a particular system makes it Zipfian, while others have come up with broad mechanisms that generate similar power laws but need some fine-tuning to generate the exact Zipf's law.
"Our method is the only one that I know of that covers both of these areas," Nemenman says. "It's broad enough to cover many different systems and you don't have to fine tune it: It doesn't require you to set some parameters at exactly the right value."
The blowfly data came from experiments led by biophysicist Rob de Ruyter that Nemenman worked on as a graduate student. Flies were turned on a rotor as they watched the world go by, hundreds of times. The moving scenes that the flies repeatedly experienced simulated their natural flight patterns.
The researchers recorded when neurons associated with vision spiked, or fired. All sets of the data largely matched within a few hundred microseconds, showing that the flies' neurons were not randomly spiking, but instead operating like precise coding machines.
If you think of a neuron firing as a "1" and a neuron not firing as a "0," then the neural activity can be thought of as words, made up of 1s and 0s. When these "words," or units, are strung together
|Contact: Megan Terraso McRainey|
Emory Health Sciences