Friday, February 1, 2013

The Emergence of Birds in the Sky and Such

Image from Physics World

Have you ever watched a large flock of  birds create beautiful patterns in the sky and wondered how it all works? Curiously, there seems to be no time lag between the movements of each individual. How does each bird know when to turn and where to go?

People have wondered about this perplexing behavior for centuries.  Perhaps, as the ancient Romans thought, it is an expression of the will of the Gods.  Early scientists could not fathom the reason for such coordination, and some even suggested some kind of natural telepathy could explain this phenomenon.  Recent studies using high-speed cameras and computational models suggest that it is all due to the simple behaviors of individuals.  Yet, even these studies have raised questions that are difficult to answer.  See Explaining Bird Flocks in Audibon Magazine.

I believe we need to look to the inherent wholeness in nature to understand why birds flock the way they do.  An ecologist understands nature as a web of interdependent systems -- a holistic process that goes far beyond simple cause and effect explanations.  In fact, the more complex and diverse a system, the hardier and healthier it becomes.  When it comes to flocking birds, perhaps there is something to the way nature works that we are only beginning to understand.

Termite Mound by Razmataz
How do those wondrous, crystalline patterns form within a snowflake? How does a termite colony know how to build tall, palatial mound with no centralized control?  How do a meager 24,000 genes create the incredible human complexity made of trillions of interdependent cells and millions of interellated processes, including the ability for you to read and make sense of this blog?

The answer may be found in the principle of emergence -- how complex patterns arise from many simple interactions and seem to create something greater than the sum of it's constituent parts. This feels rather metaphysical, and so there has been resistance to this concept within science. But no reliance on magic is needed. To understand the world this way requires a radical change in thinking, a paradigm shift one might say.  Look for it, it's everywhere.

I think I will post these thoughts in a complex system with no central organization or governance that is fundamentally altering the nature of our global culture and economy, helping nations rise and fall, and shaping human socialization like never before.  Just a bunch of connected users and computers really.