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April 23, 2021 60 min

“More than the sum of its parts” is practically the slogan of systems thinking. One canonical example is a beehive: individually, a honeybee is not that clever, but together they can function like shapeshifting metamaterials or mesh networks — some of humankind’s most sophisticated innovations. Emergent collective behavior is common in the insect world — and not just among superstar collaborators like bees, ants, and termites. One firefly, alone, blinks randomly; together, fireflies effect an awe-inspiring synchrony in large, coordinated light shows scientists are only starting to explain. It turns out that diversity is key, even in a swarm; variety improves the “computations” that these swarms perform as they adapt to their surroundings. Watch them self-organize for long enough and you might ask, “Is this what people do? What hidden patterns and emergent genius do we all participate in unawares?” If bees and fireflies inspire that kind of question in you, you’ll find yourself at home in this week’s episode…

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

In this conversation, we talk to SFI External Professor Orit Peleg (Google Scholar, Twitter) at the University of Colorado Boulder’s BioFrontiers Institute and Computer Science Department about her research into the collective behavior of bees and fireflies. These humble insects can, together, do amazing things — and what science shows about just how they do it points to deeper insights on the nature of noise, creativity, and life in our complex world.

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Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.

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Papers Discussed:

Collective mechanical adaptation in honeybee swarms

Collective ventilation in honeybee nests

Flow-mediated olfactory communication in honey bee swarms

Self-organization in natural swarms of Photinus carolinus synchronous fireflies

Spatiotemporal reconstruction of emergent flash synchronization in firefly swarms via stereoscopic 360-degree cameras


Further Listening & Reading:

Episode 29 — David Krakauer on Coronavirus, Crisis, and Creative Opportunity

Episode 56 — J. Doyne Farmer on The Complexity Economics Revolution

Stefani Crabtree — The archaeological record can teach us much about cultural resilience and how to adapt to exogenous threats

Annalee Newitz — Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

Laurence Gonzales on Behind The Shield Podcast

Michael Mauboussin — The Success Equation

Episode 55 — James Evans on Social Computing and Diversity by Design

@sfiscience on Orit Peleg’s research into honeybee olfactory communication

Mark as Played


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