Meet AC4 Adjunct Senior Research Scientist, Larry Liebovitch

Dr. Liebovitch is Professor of Physics and Psychology at Queens College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Senior Research Scientist at AC4. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the City College of New York and a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard University. At Florida Atlantic University he served as the interim director of the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences and as the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Studies in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. Dr. Liebovitch uses nonlinear methods to analyze and understand molecular, cellular, psychological, and social systems. Read more about Dr. Liebovitch here.

What got you into the intersection of physics and psychology?

I enjoy learning new things and then applying that knowledge in interdisciplinary ways to new problems. The approaches used in the physical sciences, especially those used to study “complex systems”, systems with many strongly interacting pieces, are a natural fit to help us better understand psychological and social systems.

What is the focus of your research currently?

I enjoy working with the AC4 group studying the conditions needed to sustain peaceful societies, by turning their qualitative models into mathematical models. (Some videos describing that work are available on my website.)  I am also working with clinicians trying to understand what interactions between a therapist and client lead to effective psychotherapy.  In teaching, I enjoy creating new courses and teaching materials, such as the lectures for Season 2 of Smart Physics for Brilliant Computer Engineers and the statistics course Methods in Complex Systems, both of which are on YouTube.

How did you get involved with the Sustaining Peace (SP) Project at AC4? And, how would you define SP?

Peter Coleman began collaborating with the social psychologists Robin Vallacher and Andrzej Nowak who are experts in complex systems at Florida Atlantic University that I also knew.  It was a great opportunity for me to see the different perspectives from the social science scholars and practitioners in the SP project and enjoy the opportunity to contribute my perspective to it too.  Sustaining Peace is a system of the ways that people interact to maintain peace.  Identifying all the pieces of that system and figuring out how they influence, reinforce, or undermine each other, is a central goal of the SP project.

As you’ve focused on this, what are any surprises that you’ve found or questions that you think should be asked right now?

We understand some things about how some complex systems work.  I’m surprised that our tools and our imagination isn’t (yet) sufficient to understand more.  But that’s OK, it’s taken us a few thousand years to make progress in understanding electricity and gravity.  Understanding is hard work and it can take a long time to figure stuff out.  It would be great to see what we (or the AI robots that replace us) understand about complex systems a hundred years from now.


Why it matters: if more understanding or a comprehensive understanding on peaceful societies was acquired, then what would be different?
If we had a nice list of the things that make peaceful societies, less peaceful societies might better know what things to do to reinforce peace in their own society.  What’s most needed might be different in each society, but having that list would give people a nice starting point of things to try.

Favorite Quotes

My favorite quote is from the psychologist Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  My second favorite quote is from Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I don’t have a third favorite quote.

More on the SP Project, with Dr. Liebovitch in conversation with Dr. Peter T. Coleman:

Photo: Dr. Larry Liebovitch at Columbia University’s WKCR Radio Station for AC4 Conversations: a monthly news program and podcast; taken by Meredith Smith.

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