Steven Strogatz in the New York Times:
One of the pleasures of looking at the world through mathematical eyes is that you can see certain patterns that would otherwise be hidden. This week’s column is about one such pattern. It’s a beautiful law of collective organization that links urban studies to zoology. It reveals Manhattan and a mouse to be variations on a single structural theme.
The mathematics of cities was launched in 1949 when George Zipf, a linguist working at Harvard, reported a striking regularity in the size distribution of cities. He noticed that if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on. In other words, the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank. Why this should be true, no one knows.
Even more amazingly, Zipf’s law has apparently held for at least 100 years. Given the different social conditions from country to country, the different patterns of migration a century ago and many other variables that you’d think would make a difference, the generality of Zipf’s law is astonishing.