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.



Strange Physics (and Chickens too)

long shadows on a summer evening with chickens and child

Transitions, dusk and dawn, the “in betweens” that fall between day and night and of seasons, fall and spring, these times are on the borders and edges.  The edges of days and nights, the edges of seasons, the edge of time as it changes from “then” to “here” to “was”, and the edges of documents and ideas:  the edges and borders of life are where anything is possible (even if just an increment at a time), and where change can occur and where (I think) the most interesting parts of life happen. 

The edges and borders of childhood and subsequent years, the unknowns of what could have been from then, to here, and onward.  Sitting before a wide open window as a summer evening begins to darken, watching blinking fireflies, I can remember what it felt like to be a child on summer nights long ago.  I remember time seeming to stretch out infinitely ahead.

There is a border too, between memory and habit, the past and the now.  Each time I save a new Word document, a date comes up, the same date every time, always the same reminder from the past, like a  ghost in the machine, a several times over daily message  “remember this always” and I click and highlight and save over that date with a new file name every time, as I type into that edge on the border of existence, saving, remembering.

The other night we had a visitor make an appearance after a long absence: an enormous porcupine walked out of the woods and across the lawn.  This same porcupine has made the trip before, I have seen it a handful of times, and I know it is the same animal, remarkable in that it’s larger than any porcupine I have ever seen, the size of a 40 pound dog, always walking with a limp and always set in its course from the woods to the apple trees, then across the road through corn and to the river.  Since the last trip made, the chicken coop fencing was new, set across the porcupine’s usual path, and the porcupine walked right into the fence. It must have been walking by memory rather than sight.  It struggled in trying to get under (the fence bending, the porcupine determined), and then the porcupine backed away and reset to walking in a new course, a narrow slice trimmed off routine habit, a new path. 

Earlier tonight, another visitor, this time a large gray fox.  I caught movement out of the corner of my eye through the back window, and saw the fox not twenty feet from some free ranging chickens.  Gray foxes are taller than red fox, with longer legs. He (she?) was stalking, lurking behind a mulch pile, eying my chickens.  I stepped out onto the deck, said something to the effect of “hey! you! get away from my chickens!” and it left, away into the woods.  We stayed outside to keep an eye out until every chicken was safely roosting and locked up tight.  Battle won, war no doubt to follow.  These chickens are mine, I am drawing a line that fox had better not cross.

long evening shadows summer chickens

But back to the border between memory and habit, the past and now:  “so what” you may ask.  What does it matter?  I asked myself this, and I poked around a bit, and I came across a fascinating bit of quantum physics theory about how we, the world, the universe, all is held together by “quantum entanglement on the boundary.”

In 2010, Van Raamsdonk studied what that means when quantum particles on the boundary are ‘entangled’ — meaning that measurements made on one inevitably affect the other.* He discovered that if every particle entanglement between two separate regions of the boundary is steadily reduced to zero, so that the quantum links between the two disappear, the three-dimensional space responds by gradually dividing itself like a splitting cell, until the last, thin connection between the two halves snaps. Repeating that process will subdivide the three-dimensional space again and again, while the two-dimensional boundary stays connected. So, in effect, Van Raamsdonk concluded, the three-dimensional universe is being held together by quantum entanglement on the boundary — which means that in some sense, quantum entanglement and space-time are the same thing.”

Quote from August 28, 2013, Theoretical Physics: the origins of space and time by Zeeya Merali
* SOURCE Raamsdonk, M. V. Gen. Rel. Grav. 42, 2323–2329 (2010)

Mottled Java chicks free range outside the coop

My (non-scientific) interpretation of this is that some of the answers to who we are and why we are here might be found in the entanglements on the boundaries, the edges in flux, the connections between discrete parts, and the “in betweens.” Threads in the fabric of existence, the edge of time as it changes from “then” to “here” to “was”, and the edges of documents and ideas, the edges of objects, the edges of atoms.  Interesting, no?

For interesting reading on quantum physics,
please see physicist Christopher Fuchs and this article in Quanta magazine.

For interesting science reading, definitely visit Quanta Magazine

For more on Mark Van Raamsdonk, I recommend this article on FQXi Community.

If you liked this post, you’d probably also like A Simple Rearrangement of Atoms.

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