Civility and Snark 

Rockingham Meeting House
rockingham meeting house

This is the Rockingham Meeting House, one of the two oldest church buildings in Vermont, circa 1787, used for early town meetings until the mid-nineteenth century, then abandoned and empty until early twentieth century interest in historical preservation. I’ve heard my father spent summers as a teenager helping maintain this, way back when. The window glass is wavy and flecked, and the mullions seem to have more paint than wood.

Meeting houses and churches were once  where the people used to come together, to listen and discuss and disagree, to talk things out and move forward despite any disagreement.  This no longer holds true.

Many of us now frequent Facebook, or an online newspaper comments, or Reddit, or Instagram, where we can choose what to see and discuss for ourselves, and block or hide what we do not agree with.  I think many of us are always certain of our own opinions, and we watch the comments section like the spectacle it is, with a level of disgust.

What happened to talking civilly about differences in opinion? Was there a time, way back when, when it was possible to have a hot topic discussion without derision, without snarkery, or condescension, or insults?  I am so tired of snarkiness.

When we either don’t see opposing views because we’ve tailored Facebook feeds and news sources to suit our preferences, or we can’t share or discuss opposing views civilly offline or online, we become ever more convinced that our particular views or ways are “right.”

Are we all becoming more insular, isolated, and ever more unable to see the world from another point of view? Unable to talk with people that don’t share our own views? Is that really a good idea?

What we all have in common should be greater than any of our differences.

through a glass darkly
“through a glass, darkly…” view through a window to the other side of the meeting house.

All Together Now…

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 contributes to cristae reformation and release of cytochrome, PNAS July 16, 2013 vol. 110 no. 29 11863-11868
from PNAS July 16, 2013 vol. 110 no. 29 11863-11868 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:

Trevally Baitball

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.

Civil Rights Protest
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.