Murmuration is the word used for a flock of birds in flight, and the shapes they make as they maneuver, like undulating ribbon seen in the picture below, made of many individual birds, like a fluid sort of fabric across the sky:
For years, no one knew how birds flew in murmurations without crashing into each other… it was a puzzle of math and physics and biology. Within the past few years, physicists at the Institute for Complex Systems in Rome were able to develop a 3D reconstruction able to track the flight of individual birds within flocks of thousands, which revealed that each bird keeps spatial track of the seven birds closest to it, regardless of their distance. If one bird turns, that adjustment travels through the flock at 60-120 feet per second, allowing the whole flock to turn almost simultaneously. I’ve posted a video further down.
One of the researchers, Andrea Cavagna, compares their mathematical model of how a flock maneuvers to the equations describing superfluid helium–the strange properties that helium acquires when super-cooled–and says the equations are identical, in this Science article from 7/27/14 by Marcus Woo.
Superfluid helium is weird and fascinating, take a look:
Superfluid helium qualities are fluidity, cohesion, movement without friction, and zero surface tension. Zero entropy is another quality, and I wonder if the fast and accurate wavelike transmission of information across a flock might be similar to zero entropy?
And then compare those qualities to starling flock, do you see fluidity, cohesion, movement without friction, and zero surface tension?
“Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.” Brandon Keim, The Startling Science of a Starling Murmuration published in Wired Magazine, 11/8/11. (follow him on Twitter).
And now for the completely non-scientific leaps of imagination: I look at those wheeling flocks, and I also can imagine that each bird is a tiny subatomic particle of matter, each bird an individual mitochondria within a single cell:
- Dynamics of nucleoid structure regulated by mitochondrial fission
And then, I look again, and I can imagine that each bird is a planet or a star, in a universe or a galaxy shaped flock, like these images captured by the Hubble telescope:
And if we come back down to earth, there are some similarities in schools of fish too:
Behaviorally, in birds and in fish, it seems to be a mechanism against predators, and useful in foraging, potentially helpful in efficient flying and swimming (those in a slipstream behind others expend less energy).
I wonder if there is an even faintly similar behavioral equivalent in humans, with one individual and their group of seven closest people (remember, the key in the flock formations is that each bird keeps track of the seven other birds closest to it), whether those seven are closest geographically or closest identified with, and each with their own seven overlapping people… and the actions of just one or two would then be able to shift a larger group to a new direction, just as one or two birds can turn a flock.
Mass of demonstrators leave the Washington Monument, background, for the March on Washington parade to the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo)
There’s a giant leap of imagination for you… I started by writing about birds, and I didn’t quite think this post would travel from birds to stars to neurons to crowds and a civil rights march in 1963. I think I’d best stop before I start talking about current day politics…
One more thought, in honor of Martin Luther King, and this Martin Luther King day on January 18, 2016, his quote: “We must all learn to live together like brothers–or we will all perish together as fools.”
If you’ve come this far and are still reading with me, I hope you enjoyed the trip through my addled thought processes, wild leaps and all.