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J Phys Condens Matter. 2010 Feb 17;22(6):063101. doi: 10.1088/0953-8984/22/6/063101. Epub 2010 Jan 22.

Applications of the principle of maximum entropy: from physics to ecology.

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  • 1Department of Physics, 104 Davey Laboratory, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA.


There are numerous situations in physics and other disciplines which can be described at different levels of detail in terms of probability distributions. Such descriptions arise either intrinsically as in quantum mechanics, or because of the vast amount of details necessary for a complete description as, for example, in Brownian motion and in many-body systems. We show that an application of the principle of maximum entropy for estimating the underlying probability distribution can depend on the variables used for describing the system. The choice of characterization of the system carries with it implicit assumptions about fundamental attributes such as whether the system is classical or quantum mechanical or equivalently whether the individuals are distinguishable or indistinguishable. We show that the correct procedure entails the maximization of the relative entropy subject to known constraints and, additionally, requires knowledge of the behavior of the system in the absence of these constraints. We present an application of the principle of maximum entropy to understanding species diversity in ecology and introduce a new statistical ensemble corresponding to the distribution of a variable population of individuals into a set of species not defined a priori.

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