Traffic blows up

user-gravatar Headshot
Updated Dec 14, 2009

Mathematicians at MIT have built a model to describe “how and under what conditions” so-called “phantom traffic jams,” those without any obvious cause like a wreck or disabled vehicle, form on the roadways. An article about the research into “jamitons,” as the researchers dub traffic jams of this type , appeared at the MIT news site here after the researchers reported findings in the Physical Review E online.

“Key to the new study is the realization that the mathematics of such jams … are strikingly similar to the equations that describe detonation waves produced by explosions,” the explanation runs, lending new meaning perhaps — or at least confirming the appropriateness of — the somewhat common use of the figurative language of war to describe traffic jams, and vice versa. (For instance, how often have you heard about troops “bogged down” or peace negotiations “at a standstill” in insurgent-rife territories in Iraq and elsewhere in recent years?) The discovery of the relationship between equations describing detonation waves and models of jamitons led to the researchers solving “traffic jam equations that were first theorized in the 1950s.”

For a visual representation of the equations, see the video below. For further reading for the math- and science-savvy crowd, check out this site.