Richard Levins 1930-2016

Sad news for theoretical ecology: on Jan 19th, Richard Levins died in Cambridge, MA. He was 85 years old.

His work has always been my main source of inspiration. I got to read some of his articles in college, when Antonio Bodini—who was then to become my PhD avisor—introduced Loop Analysis in a class on Environmental Impact Assessment. I immediately loved the simplicity, elegance, and power of this method, and I worked on it for my honors thesis (with Alessandro Zaccagnini and Antonio Bodini).

During my PhD years, I’ve read more of his work, including the wonderful (yet almost impossible to find) book with Charles Puccia, and the celebrated articles “The strategy of model building in population biology” and “Evolution in communities near equilibrium”.

All my work on stability, random matrices, and population dynamics has been inspired by Loop Analysis, and even today when I see a matrix, I actually see a composition of loops and paths.

Even the fact I am now in Chicago is somewhat influenced by Levins: he and Lewontin were professors here in the 1970s, and that’s why when I saw the ad for the position in Ecology & Evolution, I immediately felt I had to apply—this is my kind of Department!

There’s a nice picture of Levins in the Lillie Room downstairs: you can see him in his prime, explaining Loop Analysis on the board. That’s the way I want to remember him.


Beautiful places

Traveling is quite disruptive, especially when you have a family at home, and a lab to run. However, having to travel to incredibly beautiful destinations to meet old friends makes the whole ordeal much more pleasant.

I have just returned to Chicago after a week in Monterey, CA, where I taught a short course on computing at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. The class was great, and the organizer was my friend Giulio De Leo. I got to spend some time with Giulio and Fiorenza, as well as to interact with an incredibly motivated group of students. I also gave a talk at Hopkins and one at the main campus in Palo Alto. This is what I would see when I went for a run:

Monterey at 6:30AM
Monterey at 6:30AM

Just before heading to Stanford, I have been in Venezia, Italy, for a school on complex systems, organized by Antonio Trovato, Samir Suweis and our very own Jacopo Grilli. Again, the school was great, and the location—in San Servolo island—unbeatable:

Sunset in Venezia seen from San Servolo
Sunset in Venezia seen from San Servolo

These trips energized me a lot, but I am really happy to be home for a good stretch of time!


Here come old flat top
He come groovin’ up slowly
He got joo joo eyeball
Come together
Lennon  & Mccartney

We have been working on the applications of random matrix theory to ecology for four years. By now, it is quite clear that the most important challenge ahead is to extend the theory to the case of structured networks (as described here). A new study we just published is a first step in this direction:

 Stefano Allesina, Jacopo Grilli, György Barabás, Si Tang, Johnatan Aljadeff & Amos Maritan
Predicting the stability of large structured food webs
Nature Communications, 2015

In this work, we studied community matrices produced according to the cascade model, in which “big fish eat little fish”. These matrices look like this:

eyeballmatwhere the red squares represent negative coefficients (effects of predators on prey), and the blue ones positive coefficients (effects of prey on predators). These matrices produce a peculiar spectrum, suggestive of an “eyeball”:


In the paper, we derive simple, analytical results that allow us to approximate the spectrum (and hence the stability) of the eyeball.

 I wrote an R package that performs the analysis described in the paper, and published it on github.

PS: Despite the quote from the Beatles above, all I could listen to while writing the paper was Pink Floyd. Maybe because I remember another eyeball I saw a long time ago