On the records


World record setting has long attracted public interest and scientific investigation. Extremal records summarize the limits of the space explored by a process, and the historical progression of a record sheds light on the underlying dynamics of the process. Existing analyses of prediction, statistical properties, and ultimate limits of record progressions have focused on particular domains. However, a broad perspective on how record progressions vary across different spheres of activity needs further development. Here we employ cross-cutting metrics to compare records across a variety of domains, including sports, games, biological evolution, and technological development. We find that these domains exhibit characteristic statistical signatures in terms of rates of improvement, "burstiness" of record-breaking time series, and the acceleration of the record breaking process. Specifically, sports and games exhibit the slowest rate of improvement and a wide range of rates of "burstiness." Technology improves at a much faster rate and, unlike other domains, tends to show acceleration in records. Many biological and technological processes are characterized by constant rates of improvement, showing less burstiness than sports and games. It is important to understand how these statistical properties of record progression emerge from the underlying dynamics. Towards this end, we conduct a detailed analysis of a particular record-setting event: elite marathon running. In this domain, we find that studying record-setting data alone can obscure many of the structural properties of the underlying process. The marathon study also illustrates how some of the standard statistical assumptions underlying record progression models may be inappropriate or commonly violated in real-world datasets.

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