On Saturday, February 15, I escaped the wicked winter weather of NYC and spent the day in Santa Barbara for their annual Teachers Conference. This year’s theme: The Physics of Flocking. The description:
Birds flock! It is just one of the many remarkable examples of collective behavior found in nature. Physicists have been able to capture some of this behavior by modeling birds as tiny, flying magnetic spins that align with their neighbors according to simple rules. Thanks to these successes, flocking has become a paradigm for the behavior of living and non-living systems where a large number of individually driven units exhibit coherent organization at larger scales. Such systems include suspensions of swimming bacteria, layers of migrating cells, long biopolymers driven by proteins in the cell cytoskeleton and collections of synthetic microswimmers. Physicists, biologists and mathematicians are using statistical physics to model the complex behavior of these systems and to identify unifying principles.
This conference was awesome. I’m not usually a fan of biology topics, but I found the whole experience to be approachable and understandable. No complicated physics equations, here. Even more of a shocker – the front row was missing!
Here are some of the key things I learned about.
- The key question of the conference – how do individual driven entities act with coordinated motion and function?
- With collectives of interacting, self-propelling entities, what new states are possible and what are their properties? What do we tune to change from one state to another?
- How does nature orgaize individual active units to create coherent motion and function?
- Can we use these principles to make novel biomimetic materials and micromachines?
- What can we learn from synthetic active systems? What can this knowledge teach us about how living systems work?
- What can you get with the simplest model you can make?
Looking at how single cells swim can tell use a lot about robot design and micro-robot design.