Story on flocks in Open magazine

This post is long overdue.

An excellent story covering the science, more specifically theoretical physics, of flocking behavior appeared in the Open magazine a few weeks ago. Here is the link to the story titled “Flock theory and the Synchronies of Nature“, and the story begins with

These (flock) formations remain a mystery to scientists. Why do animals form such herds? How do they retain such order without an apparent leader? How do such complex patterns emerge?

Among the expected lineup of biologists, ecologists, oceanographers and others studying this phenomena is a rather unlikely group—theoretical physicists. Condensed-matter physicists, to be specific: scientists who study matter in its condensed states, such as liquids, colloids and solids, and the properties that arise from such changes in state. Most of the time, they study gases or crystals in laboratories, not seagulls and cod. Occasionally, though, their attention strays.

An ecological phenomenon begins to look rather like a collection of molecules wafting together. Thousands of birds in flight seem to swim like the particles of a fluid.

The focus of the story is the work of my colleague and collaborator, Sriram Ramaswamy, in the Department of Physics at IISc.

The article quotes Madan Rao, a colleague at our neighboring Raman Research Institute, and also myself. I was interviewed on why are results obtained by physicists surprising, biological implication of work of theoretical physicists, and more fundamentally why should one study such systems at all, what are their potential applications to real world, etc.

Does it really help to know that a flock of birds or swarm of locusts is going to see massive fluctuations as it travels? What is all this in aid of? Explains Guttal, whose research interest is evolutionary biology: “While the fluctuations may be a result of some physical laws, they may have consequences for the fitness of the animal.”

To take a guess, such variations may help the fish evade predators better, or find food more effectively. “We don’t know yet,” says  Guttal, “but that is a possibility we look for.”

Its one of the few instances where I have seen good science writing in Indian media. The journalist Priyanka Pulla did spend a lot of time writing this, and asking us a lot of questions (and I am not saying this just because I was interviewed!). I was initially worried on how I clearly I can explain to a journalist, and how clearly I will be represented. In the end her the effort she has put in to get the science as accurate as possible shows up very well in the article.

Go and read it all! 


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