Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Mmmmmmm....pi": Science and The Simpsons in Nature

Nature this week has two articles highlighting science on The Simpsons. The first is an interview with executive producer Al Jean, the show's head writer and a Harvard mathematics graduate. The second is a list of the top ten science moments on the show. Fun, quick reading.


So I created this Yahoo Pipes newsfeeder which collects blog entries and news articles that relate to my project. In order to do this I use a group of key words to identify possible articles of interest. This often results in news articles that have nothing to do with my work. Today I received this article from the Science section of the New York Times:

The Whys of Mating: 237 Reasons and Counting

Published: July 31, 2007

Scholars in antiquity began counting the ways that humans have sex, but they weren’t so diligent in cataloging the reasons humans wanted to get into all those positions. Darwin and his successors offered a few explanations of mating strategies — to find better genes, to gain status and resources — but they neglected to produce a Kama Sutra of sexual motivations.

Perhaps you didn’t lament this omission. Perhaps you thought that the motivations for sex were pretty obvious. Or maybe you never really wanted to know what was going on inside other people’s minds, in which case you should stop reading immediately.

For now, thanks to psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin, we can at last count the whys. After asking nearly 2,000 people why they’d had sex, the researchers have assembled and categorized a total of 237 reasons — everything from “I wanted to feel closer to God” to “I was drunk.” They even found a few people who claimed to have been motivated by the desire to have a child.

The researchers, Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, believe their list, published in the August issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, is the most thorough taxonomy of sexual motivation ever compiled. This seems entirely plausible.

I wish I could complete my project with a questionaire: What species would you identify yourself as? What are your reasons for identifying yourself as that species [for example: number of antennal segments, degree of hairiness, upbringing, medical testing, etc.]? Where do you normally reside? Where do you normally work? With whom do you normally associate with? What method would you most likely fall prey to: a) pitfall trap; b) winkler; c) canopy fogger; etc. etc.

Read entire article here
Read the journal paper (with list) here
Suggest new reasons here

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sharkrunners: Realtime Data Used for a Game

So cool! When can we have an ant version?

Read original article here. Via Boing Boing

How to Photograph Bugs and Other Insects

A nice article in PopPhoto.com on how to take magnificent photos of teeny tiny critters. It includes homemade equipment suggestions and lots of fabulous photos.

Read entire article here

Image: © Christopher Badzioch

This lovely bee photo is accompanied by the photographer's wise words: Use serious caution with bees. They may become very aggressive. I have been stung on several occasions by bees in the studio, and I no longer recommend capturing them.

Odile Crick, Who Drew Iconic Double Helix, Dies at 86

Odile Crick, an artist whose original sketch of the double helix of DNA, the genetic blueprint for life, became a symbol of modern molecular biology, died July 5 at her home in La Jolla, Calif. She was 86.

Mrs. Crick's illustration of DNA's double helix structure first appeared in the journal Nature in 1953.

The cause was cancer, said her stepson, Michael Crick, who said the family had not announced Mrs. Crick’s death until last week.

The structure of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, was discovered in 1953 by Mrs. Crick’s husband, Francis H. C. Crick, and James D. Watson. The breakthrough laid the foundation for molecular biology by making it clear that the DNA molecule is the medium in which genetic information is stored and passed from generation to generation.

The double helix consists of two chains of DNA spiraling in opposite directions, each made up of four types of chemical units that are linked together. The sequence of those chemical units is the basis for genes, which signal the synthesis of the essential components of every living cell. Dr. Crick, who died in 2004, and Dr. Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962.

In a brief interview on Thursday, Dr. Watson recalled why he and his colleague had asked Mrs. Crick to make the original black-and-white sketch — based on their mathematical analysis of a pattern of spots revealed by a process called X-ray crystallography — for the April 1953 issue of the journal Nature.

“Francis can’t draw, and I can’t draw, and we need something done quick,” Dr. Watson said. The drawing “showed the essence of the structure,” he said. “And it became historically important, reproduced over and over.”

Dr. Watson pointed out that his sister, Betty, had been recruited to type the historic research paper.

Read rest of New York Times article

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Notes From Underground: Vol. 12-2 July 2007

The July issue of Notes from Underground is out. Not much new, though. The same announcement for Advances in Ant Systematics, a festchrift, which was supposed to have been published a year ago, but which now says it will be published in August (no year, though, so perhaps they are hedging their bets). I'll believe it when I see it. I would like to encourage everyone out there to submit stuff to Notes from Underground, which is awesome and needs your support! I will try to follow my own advice. Maybe someone should start a Great Myrmecologists series. That would be fun.


Dorymyrmex bicolor, apparently raiding a colony of Myrmecocystus mexicanus in my front yard, Apple Valley California. Massed ants were carting off larvae of the Myrmecocystus. Photograph by Gordon C. Snelling

Progress, Actual!!

I think the nightmare is over. I have finally been able to get at all those program files. Don't even ask me how I did it. I think everything is cool now. So... today I do some work. Now, what was it I was doing before I got distracted....? Something about ants? I'm sure it will come to me eventually. Thanks to all for your support. As a thank you, I give you a bunch of cool ant photos from Flickr:

Images from top to bottom: the huntress (myrmician's flickr photostream); weaver ant with its food and water (swaheel's flickr photostream); ant antfight (InsectHunter's flickr photostream)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Great Entomologists: Auguste-Henri Forel

More great entomologists from Ontogeny. Click here to read the entry on Auguste-Henri Forel.

I had such a fun time looking up random facts about Fabre. So of course I did the same for Forel. The coolest fact so far (at least to me) is that we share the same birthday! He also suffered a stroke at the age of 64 that paralyzed his right side, but taught himself to write with his left hand and was able to continue his studies (that'll teach me to complain about a cold). He seems to have been an outspoken socialist and rationalist who eventually converted to the Bahá'í faith. From
a Historical Neuroscience paper entitled "Auguste Forel on Ants and Neurology." (see below)
In 1920, Forel made his first acquaintance with the supraconfessional world-religion of the Bahá’i, founded in the middle of the 19th century by the Persian Bahá `u` lláh. The Bahá’i faith, which advocates the abolition of all sexual, racial, national and religious prejudices and wishes to harmonize the scientific mind with social and cultural concepts, was particularly appealing to Forel. The following excerpt from his testament is particularly revealing: “It is the true religion of the welfare of human society, it has neither priests nor dogmas, and it binds together all the human beings who inhabit this little globe. I have become a Bahá’i. May this religion continue and be crowned with success; this is my most ardent wish”.3 Forel’s faith was rewarded by a “Tablet” that was written for him by Bahá `u` lláh himself and which is still considered today by the Bahá’is as one of the most weighty epistle their Master ever wrote. Amazingly, this letter is perhaps the most widespread document related to Forel available today on Internet.
Click here for a Historical Neuroscience paper entitled "Auguste Forel on Ants and Neurology."

Click here for the ‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ’S TABLET TO DR. FOREL

Click here for a shortened version of a considerably larger essay calling Dr. Forel "one of the most unappreciated figures in modern world psychiatry."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Progress, Lack of: Update II

So I thought that I was finally going to be able to start being productive this week. My computer seems to be working fine. I am finally over a nasty cold/virus/allergy/whatever that's been killing me for the past several weeks. I was able to reconnect my computer to the internet and the school server, where I had stored zip files of all my important stuff. I transferred all of my documents (and the all-important ant database) back onto my computer. Next step -- put back all of my various program files onto my computer.

Before I reinstalled my operating system, I made a zip file of my entire "program files" folder and stuck it onto the school server. When everything was ready, I put it back onto my computer. No problem. Then I tried to unzip it. Problem. First it said there were no files on it and it was empty. Then it said the files were all invalid or corrupted. Ooookaaay. I then went online to research this dilemna and discovered that lots of people have had this problem and I should try a different program to unzip it. So I downloaded one that looked good and tried to unzip my folder. Success! It unzipped one folder. Ummmmm........ there were like 40 folders in there. Where are they? Don't know. This program has no idea what I am talking about. So I download a second program. Same result. I download a third program. That one burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. Just kidding. It had the same result. But the fourth program actually seemed to accomplish something.

It started listing all the files it was repairing. Lots and lots of files. Great. I let it run for almost 5 hours and it wasn't done, so I stopped it and attempted to save what it had already repaired. Sucker! You have the evaluation version. You need to actually buy it to save the files. Fine. This is the first program that actually seemed to do anything, so I figure it's worth it. I buy it.

I wait impatiently for confirmation email, install new program and discover that I cannot simply save the files it has already repaired but I have to run it again. Fine. I run it again. It takes a really long time. I stay in the office until 9pm, and then finally decide to leave it running and go home. Next day, I get there bright and early, eager to start my new day, and it's still running. Furthermore, it looks like it is only about halfway done. I waste an entire day browsing the internet and coming up with ever-lamer roller derby names and then go home again. Surely it will be done by the next day? So, this morning I wisely call my office and ask my officemate to look on my computer and tell me if the program is still running. I'm so smart. If it is still running, I will stay at home and not get all frustrated. My officemate says: what program? Apparently, there is no program running on my computer. Nothing. Nada. Zip. This doesn't bode well. I rush to school and sure enough, the program is no longer running.

What does this mean? I think it means that I need to run it again. I also think it means that I have wasted the past several days, and I have no guarantee that I won't waste the next several days doing this again. There doesn't seem to be a way to just repair parts of it and save them in smaller chunks. I have emailed the support people but haven't gotten a reply yet. I am in a really foul mood and want to beat people up. Luckily, I have roller derby practice this evening.

Bees Dying: Is It a Crisis or a Phase?

Via: NYT

Over the last year, large die-offs of commercial honeybee colonies, from unknown causes, have raised concern that an agricultural crisis is at hand. Now, however, some experts on insect biology and bee rearing are questioning how unusual the die-offs are, saying commercial beekeeping has long had a pattern of die-offs, and without better monitoring, there is not enough information to know if anything new or calamitous is happening.

If the problem is worse than before, they say, it may be because more bee colonies are being housed and trucked by fewer beekeepers, raising the chances of infestations or infections spreading.

The official word, endorsed by many scientists and people in beekeeping businesses, is that a newly named syndrome, called colony collapse disorder,or CCD, is at work and poses a significant threat to American fruit, nut and vegetable crops.

An action plan released Friday by the Department of Agriculture used the phrase “CCD crisis” to describe the recent die-offs, even as it said it was “uncertain whether CCD is a new phenomenon” and described similar die-offs as long ago as 1898.

No one in the field doubts that commercial beekeepers in more than 20 states have seen large declines in hive populations in the last year — more than 70 percent in some cases — and that agriculture is facing problems pollinating some crops.

It is also clear that bees in the Americas, both wild native species and honeybees, which were imported long ago and are the commercial standard, have been hard hit in recent decades by mites and infectious agents.

What some scientists say is missing from the debate is historical context. “Every time there are these disappearances, the ills of the moment tend to be held accountable,” said May Berenbaum, who heads the entomology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and led a National Academy of Sciences review of the status of North American bees and other pollinators that was published last year.

“In the ’60s it was synthetic organic insecticides,” Dr. Berenbaum said. “In the ’70s it was Africanized bee genes. In the 19th century, there is a wonderful report about this resulting from a lack of moral fiber. Weak character was why they weren’t returning to the hives.”

One thing almost everyone seems to agree on is the need for consistent, frequent censuses of the country’s bee populations, but money for monitoring has not been increased, bee experts said.

Eric Mussen, a bee expert at the University of California, Davis, said he did not understand the talk of catastrophe, noting that even after colonies are lost, beekeepers can quickly replace them.

Michael Burgett, a professor emeritus of entomology at Oregon State University, said the big honeybee losses in some regions could simply reflect unremarkable spikes above a common level of mortality of more than 20 percent in recent decades.

“In the late 1970s we had another scare similar to this,” Dr. Burgett said. “They called it ‘disappearing disease’ at the time. But we never found a specific cause for it, we continued to improve our bee management programs and ‘disappearing disease’ disappeared.”

The 7 Most Exciting Moments in Science...according to Discover Magazine

Via: Discover Magazine

One of science’s most well loved stories is that of Archimedes, fresh from discovering the principle of buoyancy during a bath, running naked through the streets of Syracuse yelling “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”) Unfortunately, the story, told for the first time two centuries after Archimedes’ death, is hogwash. Myths like this one sometimes make it seem that science moves along in a series of epiphanies, hopping from one transcendent moment to another.

In reality, science generally pushes forward with all the alacrity of tectonic plates, painstakingly testing and disproving theories until new laws emerge. But sometimes, very rarely, science really does take a great leap forward. Here are the seven most exciting and important moments in the entire history of science:

7 Scientists worked like mad at the turn of the 20th century trying to determine how nerve cells transmit messages. Otto Loewi had heard of an obscure theory that they communicated by releasing pulses of chemicals, but hadn’t thought about it for decades until one night in 1920. He dreamed of an experiment involving the still-beating hearts of frogs that would test this theory. He woke up, took copious notes, and returned blissfully to sleep. In the morning, he found the notes illegible, the insight vanished. Fortunately, the dream made a repeat appearance the next night, and this time Loewi sprang out of bed and rushed to the laboratory to begin the experiments that helped confirm the chemical transmission of nerve impulses.

René Descartes
Image courtesy of
Library of Congress

6 Young René Descartes was a sickly child. To shore up his health, he was allowed to sleep until 11 o’clock every morning, a habit he maintained throughout his adult life. During one of these mornings abed, Descartes watched a fly flit across the ceiling. He realized he could describe the fly’s movements and its location by measuring its distance from two perpendicular walls. A formalized version of this fly-tracking technique became the Cartesian coordinate system of perpendicular lines and planes.

Nikola Tesla
Image courtesy of
Library of Congress

5 The direct current generator that ran the first power plant in the 1870s blinded the world with science, but Nikola Tesla remained underwhelmed: It was inefficient and broke down easily. While strolling through a Budapest park in 1882 as the sun was sinking, Tesla pondered this dilemma. He recited a stanza from his favorite play, Faust, in which a scientist trades his soul for knowledge. Tesla’s prodigious brain, possibly desperate to find a new topic, conjured up the design for a reliable and efficient alternating current motor. Tesla started sketching plans with a stick for the benefit of his walking partner.

Edwin Hubble
Image courtesy of

4 Long before we had the Hubble Telescope, astronomers were puzzled about the nature of nebulae: odd, faint stars that sometimes looked like spirals. Some scientists, proponents of the island universe theory, suggested they were galaxies—distinct clusters of stars—millions of light-years away. Opponents claimed they must be some new sort of star within our own galaxy. Edwin Hubble solved the entire puzzle from a California hilltop in 1923. He examined a famous smudge of light named Andromeda, and noticed that it resolved to a cluster of discrete stars, proving the existence of galaxies other than the Milky Way.

3 Robert Hooke contributed to fields as diverse as astronomy, architecture, paleontology, and physics, but his most important accomplishment was in biology. In 1665, he built his own compound microscope and began exploring. When he peered through its lenses at a thin slice of corkwood, he saw infinitesimal rectangles that reminded him of monks’ cells. Hooke thereby discovered biological cells, the fundamental unit of all organisms.

2 In 1896, physicist Henri Becquerel was fascinated by the recently discovered X-ray. He thought that naturally fluorescent minerals produced X-rays after prolonged exposure to sunlight. To test his theory, he let mineral samples soak up the sun and then wrapped them in black cloth with a photographic plate, expecting the resulting X-rays to create weak images. On a February day too overcast to work, Becquerel wrapped up a plate with a sample of uranium and left it in a drawer for the next few days. By the time he opened the bundle, the uranium had burned its own image on the film, as clear as if it had been exposed to bright sunlight. Something in the rock released more energy than weak phosphorescence could explain. Upon further investigation, he and Marie and Pierre Curie discovered that that something was radioactivity.

Alexander Flemming
Image courtesy of
the USDA

1 In 1928, Alexander Fleming had the archetypal eureka moment—and unlike the tale of Archimedes, this one’s true. Believing that there was a substance in snot that worked as an antibiotic, he smeared a set of Petri dishes with bacteria and his own special Fleming phlegm, and left the dishes while he took a two-week vacation. When he returned, the mucus had not killed any of the bacteria, but mold had drifted in from a nearby lab and contaminated one dish. All the bacteria close to the mold were dead. Closer examination of the mold showed that it was producing a chemical—penicillin—that killed the bacteria.

As with any top-whatever list, picking the best eureka moments is a judgment call; from where we’re sitting it seems that Fleming’s discovery was truly a momentous event, that Newton probably didn’t get pelted in the head with an apple, and that Descartes most likely did lie in bed and watch flies (it was, after all, the 17th century).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Quote of the Day

"We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area."
- UK military spokesman MIKE SHEARER responding to a report that British forces in the Iraqi city of Basra had released a plague of giant, man-eating badgers onto the city
Okay, not anty at all, but this totally made my day.
Link to TIME magazine Quotes of the Day Page
Link to BBC article about the incident

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nikon's small world photomicrography competition

Alright all you myrmecologists out there -- send in your cool anty photos to the Nikon Small World Competition and get us some props:

The Nikon International Small World Competition first began in 1974 as a means to recognize and applaud the efforts of those involved with photography through the light microscope. Since then, Small World has become a leading showcase for photomicrographers from the widest array of scientific disciplines.

A photomicrograph is a technical document that can be of great significance to science or industry. But a good photomicrograph is also an image whose structure, color, composition, and content is an object of beauty, open to several levels of comprehension and appreciation.

The Nikon Small World Competition is open to anyone with an interest in photography through the microscope. Truly international in scope, entries have been received from the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Winners have included both professionals and hobbyists.

The subject matter is unrestricted and any type of light microscopy technique is acceptable, including phase contrast, polarized light, fluorescence, interference contrast, darkfield, confocal, deconvolution, and mixed techniques. Entries submitted to Nikon are then judged by an independent panel of experts who are recognized authorities in the area of photomicrography and photography. These entries are judged on the basis of originality, informational content, technical proficiency and visual impact.

Entries may be submitted either on film (in 35 millimeter transparency format) or uploaded digitally through your web browser. The links below provide options for entering the contest.

Deadline for Entries:
April 30, 2008

Drosophila virilis (fruit fly) sperm; (2001 13th, Earl Nishiguchi)
Amisega floridensis (parasitic wasp); 2007 entry, Klaus Bolte
Muscoid fly (house fly); 2005 1st, Charles B. Krebs
Wing of a Lasius niger queen (garden ant); (2004 Honorable Mention, Jaromir Plasek)
Whole mount of an ant; (1981 5th, D.R. Simpson)

Biodiversity and ecosystem multifunctionality

Also in this week's Nature is a letter from Andy Hector & Robert Bagchi on biodiversity and ecosystem multifunctionality. From the editor's summary:

The question of whether species extinctions alter the productivity of species communities and ecosystem function was for many years a subject of controversy. A series of meta-analyses had established something like consensus: species loss does impair ecological function, but it depends which species are lost: and many species appear to be functionally redundant. In the past though, research has focused on individual ecosystem processes, despite the fact that most ecosystems are managed for several ecosystem services. Andy Hector and Robert Bagchi have analysed published data from grassland biodiversity experiments to look at the relationship between biodiversity and multiple ecological processes. They find that different species often influence different ecosystem functions, so studies that look at just one ecosystem process may miss the big picture. Multifunctional ecosystems may therefore require greater biodiversity to ensure their survival than has been suggested by previous studies.

LetterBiodiversity and ecosystem multifunctionality

Andy Hector & Robert Bagchi


Linnaeus and taxonomy in Japan

From this week's Nature is an edited extract of a speech given by His Majesty The Emperor of Japan to the Linnaean Society of London on 29 May 2007. The full text of this speech (http://tinyurl.com/29djvx) will be published later this year by The Linnaean.

In memory of Carl Linnaeus I would like to address the question of how European scholarship has developed in Japan, touching upon the work of people such as Carl Peter Thunberg, Linnaeus's disciple who stayed in Japan for a year as a doctor for the Dutch Trading House (pictured above) and later published Flora Japonica.

In the first edition of Species Plantarum in 1753, and in his later books, Linnaeus described many Japanese plants and gave them scientific names. Camellia japonica, for example, was described in the first edition of Species Plantarum, and this scientific name is still used today.

These Japanese plants were illustrated by Engelbert Kaempfer in his book Amoenitatum Exoticarum, published in 1712. Kaempfer was a German doctor who served in the Dutch Trading House in Japan for two years from 1690.

At that time, Japan had isolated itself from the world. Japanese people were not allowed to go abroad, and visits by foreigners to Japan were severely restricted. As the policy of isolation was taken to suppress Christianity, the Dutch, who came for trading purposes only, were permitted to come to Japan.

Dutch people were made to live on an artificial island, Dejima, built in the sea off Nagasaki and connected to land by a bridge; they could not leave the island without permission. The head of the Trading House, however, was to visit the shogun at Edo — present-day Tokyo — once a year, accompanied by his delegation including the doctor. Kaempfer thus visited Edo twice, taking more than 80 days for the trip each time. The 256 sketches of Japanese plants he made during his stay are now kept in the Natural History Museum, London.

Read the rest of the speech here


Ants employed to defend African mangoes

Charles Mkoka
10 July 2007
Source: SciDev.Net

[LILONGWE] African farmers could effectively control fruit fly damage to citrus fruit, cashew and cocoa crops by using the weaver ant as a method of biological control, according to researchers.

Paul Van Mele and colleagues published their work in the June edition of the Journal of Economic Entomology.

Read article here

Great Entomologists: Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre

Ontogeny has a new series (I hope it's a series) of posts highlighting famous entomologists. What a great idea! I could have sworn I saw another post about Fabricius, but now I cannot find it. So, first up is Fabre, someone whom I knew almost nothing about and now am quite impressed by.

From the Trivia section of Wikipedia, a Caterpillar Death Spiral!

The renowned French Naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, in an experiment with processionary caterpillars was able to entice them on to the rim of a large flowerpot. Processionary caterpillars move through the forest in a long procession feeding on pine needles. They derive their name from their habit of following a lead caterpillar, each with its eyes half closed and head fitted snugly against the rear end of the preceding caterpillar.

Fabre succeeded in getting the lead caterpillar to connect up with the last one, creating a complete circle, which moved around the pot in a never ending procession. He thought that after a few circles of the pot, the caterpillars would discover their predicament or tire of their endless progression and move off in another direction. But they never varied their movements.

Through force of habit, the caterpillars kept moving relentlessly around the pot at about the same pace for a period of seven days. They would have continued even longer if they had not stopped from sheer exhaustion and hunger. As part of the experiment, food had been placed close by in sight of the group, but because it was out of the path of the circle, they continued in their procession to what could have been their ultimate destruction.link Processionary caterpillars
From an article by Stephen Jay Gould:

J. H. Fabre, the great nineteenth-century French entomologist, who remains to this day the preeminently literate natural historian of insects, made a special study of parasitic wasps and wrote with an unabashed anthropocentrism about the struggles of paralyzed victims (see his books Insect Life and The Wonders of Instinct). He describes some imperfectly paralyzed caterpillars that struggle so violently every time a parasite approaches that the wasp larvae must feed with unusual caution. They attach themselves to a silken strand from the roof of their burrow and descend upon a safe and exposed part of the caterpillar:

The grub is at dinner: head downwards, it is digging into the limp belly of one of the caterpillars . . . At the least sign of danger in the heap of caterpillars, the larva retreats . . . and climbs back to the ceiling, where the swarming rabble cannot reach it. When peace is restored, it slides down its silken cord... and returns to table, with its head over the viands and its rear upturned and ready to withdraw in case of need.

In another chapter, he describes the fate of a paralyzed cricket:

One may see the cricket, bitten to the quick, vainly move its antennae and abdominal styles, open and close its empty jaws, and even move a foot, but the larva is safe and searches its vitals with impunity. What an awful nightmare for the paralyzed cricket!

Fabre even learned to feed some paralyzed victims by placing a syrup of sugar and water on their mouthparts-- thus showing that they remained alive, sentient, and, by implication, grateful for any palliation of their inevitable fate. If Jesus, immobile and thirsting on the cross, received only vinegar from his tormentors, Fabre at least could make an ending bittersweet.

Also from the trivia section of Wikipedia:

From a user comment on IMDB (could this French film be about the famed entomologist? I think so):
Henri Diamant-Berger seems to have been a competent director, no more, who made one fine film. I enjoyed Monsieur Fabre enormously; Pierre Fresnay impressed me very strongly as the headstrong entomologist who was awarded the Legion d'honneur and then was hounded out of his teaching post for instructing the youth of Avignon in sex in the animal kingdom. I suppose the ramifications of Victorian scientific research are affecting us still: witness the creationism debate going on in the United States today.

It's Fresnay's film from beginning to end. The actor who played in Le Corbeau, Monsieur Vincent and many other films is just wonderful. I thought Élina Labourdette was going to have a substantial part, but we only see her in the brief Paris scenes (sigh).
From Today in Science History:
Victor Hugo dubbed him "the insects’ Homer and Edmond Rostand named him the "Virgil of insects." Darwin described him as "an incomparable observer."
He's a Capricorn on the cusp of Sagittarius. According to astrology.com:
Those born on this cusp are both ambitious and disciplined, determined and dedicated to achieving their goals. They are also practical and realistic, cautious not to get in over their head. Sagittarius/Capricorns are the scholars and learners of the zodiac. They seek the truth and the meaning of life, and they love to explore. The astrological symbol of Sagittarius is the Archer. The Archer is a Centaur, half man and half horse, and it is the only sign of the zodiac that is half man and half beast. Centaurs were the great scholars and intellectuals of Greek and Roman myth, but they could also be hotheaded and aggressive.
Who says astrology is crap?

Read the rest of the Wikipedia article here
Read Fabre's Book of Insects on Google Book Search here

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Monster sloth stalking Amazon?

via Ontogeny:
Perhaps it is nothing more than a legend, as skeptics say. Or maybe it is real, as those who claim to have seen it avow. But the mere mention of the mapinguary, the giant slothlike monster of the Amazon, is enough to send shivers down the spines of almost all who dwell in the world's largest rain forest. The folklore here is full of tales of encounters with the creature, and nearly every Indian tribe in the Amazon, including those that have had no contact with one other, have a word for the mapinguary (pronounced ma-ping-wahr-EE). The name is usually translated as "the roaring animal" or "the fetid beast." So widespread and so consistent are such accounts that in recent years a few scientists have organized expeditions to try to find the creature. They have not succeeded, but at least one says he can explain the beast and its origins. "It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguary is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths," thousands of years ago, said David Oren, a former director of research at the Goeldi Institute in Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River. "We know that extinct species can survive as legends for hundreds of years. But whether such an animal still exists or not is another question, one we can't answer yet."
Read the rest of the article here

Images: Selected Giant Ground Sloth Stamps

Swarm intelligence and real-world problem-solving

From BoingBoing:

National Geographic has a terrific article covering the state of the art in the use of simulated swarming/flocking/schooling as a means of solving hard technical and social problems, from planning meetings to routing Southwest Airlines's cargo to creating realistic CGI.

I love this stuff. There's such elegance in using simulated hives to let computers evolve surprising, counter-intuitive and highly effective solutions to our problems. I took a stab at exploring the social consequences of this in my story Human Readable, where simulated ant-colonies are used to allocate all of humanity's resources.

I just finished reading a killer novel that goes way farther down this road. Chris Moriarty's Spin Control concerns itself with the clash of civilizations between hive-like, genetically engineered, ant-obsessed clones and the remaining baseline humans, after the Earth has been razed by climate change. Moriarty included an impressive and exhaustive bibliography at the end of the book that had me drooling and wishing for another eight hours in the day, just so I could read half the books on it. (Moriarty also has a good collection of links on the subject).

"When a forager has contact with a patroller, it's a stimulus for the forager to go out," Gordon says. "But the forager needs several contacts no more than ten seconds apart before it will go out."

To see how this works, Gordon and her collaborator Michael Greene of the University of Colorado at Denver captured patroller ants as they left a nest one morning. After waiting half an hour, they simulated the ants' return by dropping glass beads into the nest entrance at regular intervals—some coated with patroller scent, some with maintenance worker scent, some with no scent. Only the beads coated with patroller scent stimulated foragers to leave the nest. Their conclusion: Foragers use the rate of their encounters with patrollers to tell if it's safe to go out. (If you bump into patrollers at the right rate, it's time to go foraging. If not, better wait. It might be too windy, or there might be a hungry lizard waiting out there.) Once the ants start foraging and bringing back food, other ants join the effort, depending on the rate at which they encounter returning foragers.

"A forager won't come back until it finds something," Gordon says. "The less food there is, the longer it takes the forager to find it and get back. The more food there is, the faster it comes back. So nobody's deciding whether it's a good day to forage. The collective is, but no particular ant is."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Galapagos declared "in danger" by UN

Source: BBC News via Ontogeny

The Galapagos Islands, the first place on the planet officially designated as a World Heritage site, has been declared "in danger" by the UN. Experts said the 19 islands and surrounding ocean were under threat from "invasive species", increased tourism and growing immigration.

Isolated some 1,000km (620 miles) off of Ecuador's coast, the islands contain much unique plant and animal life. They were protected by Unesco 1978, with the boundaries extended in 2001. The UN Environment, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), which administers the list of World Heritage sites, added the Galapagos Islands to a comparatively small list of sites facing clear dangers. In a statement, the organisation said increased international interest in the islands - which are Ecuador's most popular tourist attraction - was effectively contributing to their gradual decline."The number of days spent by passengers of cruise ships has increased by 150% over the past 15 years," the organisation said in a statement. "This increase has fuelled a growth in immigration and the ensuing inter-island traffic has led to the introduction of more invasive species." Earlier this year Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said the Galapagos were at risk and in need of urgent action to protect their unique ecology. He said he was considering a range of measures designed to protect the islands' environment. The wide variety of unusual flora and fauna on the islands, much of it found nowhere else on the planet, inspired naturalist Charles Darwin and helped contribute to his theory of evolution. Unesco also placed Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal on the endangered list because of the threat of poaching and a proposed dam on the Gambia river. The committee is considering 45 applications to join the World Heritage list from 39 countries. It currently contains 830 sites.

Rediscovery of an ant genus from India, and discovery of a new species Dilobocondyla bangalorica

From Ant Visions (September 18, 2006)

A rare ant genus Dilobocondyla was discovered (Sunil Kumar et al, 1997) in urban regions of Bangalore, its first records from the Indian subcontinent. The species then unidentified, has now been rediscovered and has been found to be new to science. It goes with the species name, ‘bangalorica’ in recognition of the locality, Bangalore, from where it has been found (Varghese, 2006). I had a rare first hand opportunity to watch these ants along with Sunil Kumar and Thresiamma Varghese. The ant measures less than 4 millimeters in length. The ants were never seen foraging on ground and as of now this species has been found to nest only on a particular tree species, Plumeria alba.

see more pictures of this new species here

Sunil Kumar M, Srihari K T, Nair P, Varghese T and Gadagkar R. 1997. Ant species richness at selected localities of Bangalore. Insect Environment 3, 3-5.
Varghese T. 2006. A new species of ant genus Dilobocondyla (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) from India, with notes on its nesting behaviour. Oriental Insects 40, 23-32.

TED Talks - Dan Dennett: Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes

From the TED site:

Here's one of those talks that can change your view of the world forever. Starting with the deceptively simple story of an ant, Dan Dennett unleashes a dazzling sequence of ideas, making a powerful case for the existence of "memes" -- a term coined by Richard Dawkins for mental concepts that are literally alive and capable of spreading from brain to brain. On the way, look out for:
+ a powerful one-sentence secret of happiness
+ a compelling insight into terrorists' motivation
+ a chilling view of Islam
And just when you think you know where the talk's heading, it dramatically shifts direction and questions some of western culture's fundamental assumptions.
This. Is. Unmissable.
See the video here. Also, see why you should listen to him.

Journal of Visualized Experiments

This month's edition of Wired magazine has a little blurb about a website which features videos of experimental procedures and techniques. Launched last October by former Harvard researcher Moshe Pritsker, the Journal of Visualized Experiments is a fantastic idea that I would like to point everyone's attention to.

The journal's still a work in progress (nothing's gone viral yet), but just wait. "No one has published results in video before," Pritsker says. "Scientists don't know how to do it." Here are a few of the journal's faves.
Must-See Experiments

Culture of Mouse Neural Stem Cell Precursors

D. Spencer Currle, Jia Sheng Hu, Aaron Kolski-Andreaco, Edwin S. Monuki, UC Irvine.
Video Extracting a mouse uterus, removing embryos, and harvesting stem cells from the cerebral cortex.
Goal Improving stem-cell handling skills for eventual use on human cells.
Highlight Close shot demonstrating how to use bent forceps to tease out cortical tissue

Studying Aggression in Drosophila
Sarah Certel, Edward A. Kravitz, Sibu Mundiyanapurath, Harvard Medical School.
Video Building glass arenas and staging bouts between drosophila.
Goal Figuring out how aggression is wired in the brain.
Highlight It's fruit-fly fight club — close-up lunges, blocks, and feints

Testing Visual Sensitivity to the Speed and Direction of Motion in Lizards
Kevin L. Woo, Centre for the Integrative Study of Animal Behaviour, Macquarie University, Sydney
Video Coaxing Jacky dragons (an Australian lizard species) to take cues from moving dots.
Goal Working with lizards as a model for motion sensing.
Highlight The lizard actually completes the experiment. It's tough to motivate reptiles to stay interested in scientific work, Woo says
On a funny side note, my husband pointed this article out to me and said he thought that one of the authors of the Drosophila video was Sarah Doom, one of the Boston Derby Dames. He based this on the knowledge that Sarah Doom studies fruit flies at Harvard and her name is Sarah (how many could there be?). Apparently at least two, because I don't believe that is her. Cheers!

Increasing densities of leaf-cutting ants ( Atta spp.) with proximity to the edge in a Brazilian Atlantic forest

Short Communications
Rainer Wirth, Sebastian T. Meyer, Walkiria R. Almeida, Manoel Vieira Araújo, Veralucia S. Barbosa, Inara R. Leal,
Journal of Tropical Ecology, Volume 23 Issue 04 , pp 501-505

Leaf-cutting ants (genera Atta and Acromyrmex) have been denoted key species of American rain-forest ecosystems (Fowler et al. 1989) because of their multifarious effects on the vegetation. Being dominant herbivores, cutting up to 13% of the standing leaf crop in a colony s territory per year, they affect directly and significantly individual plants, plant communities and ecosystems (Wirth et al. 2003). The considerable ecological impact of these ants is paralleled by the well-known fact that some species strongly benefit from human-driven habitat alterations and represent prime pests throughout Latin America (Cherrett 1986). Numerous studies have documented populations of leaf-cutting ant to increase with increasing agricultural land use, deforestation and or disturbance (Fowler et al. 1986, Jaffe Vilela 1989, Jonkman 1979). Specifically, elevated colony densities have been recorded in (1) transformed vegetation such as pastures (Fowler 1983) and plantations (Jaffe 1986, Oliveira et al. 1998), (2) early successional forests (Vasconcelos Cherrett 1995), and recently (3) isolated forest remnants (Terborgh et al. 2001).

Swarm Theory in National Geographic

A single ant or bee isn't smart, but their colonies are. The study of swarm intelligence is providing insights that can help humans manage complex systems, from truck routing to military robots.

I used to think ants knew what they were doing. The ones marching across my kitchen counter looked so confident, I just figured they had a plan, knew where they were going and what needed to be done. How else could ants organize highways, build elaborate nests, stage epic raids, and do all the other things ants do?

Turns out I was wrong. Ants aren't clever little engineers, architects, or warriors after all—at least not as individuals. When it comes to deciding what to do next, most ants don't have a clue. "If you watch an ant try to accomplish something, you'll be impressed by how inept it is," says Deborah M. Gordon, a biologist at Stanford University.

How do we explain, then, the success of Earth's 12,000 or so known ant species? They must have learned something in 140 million years.

"Ants aren't smart," Gordon says. "Ant colonies are." A colony can solve problems unthinkable for individual ants, such as finding the shortest path to the best food source, allocating workers to different tasks, or defending a territory from neighbors. As individuals, ants might be tiny dummies, but as colonies they respond quickly and effectively to their environment. They do it with something called swarm intelligence.

Where this intelligence comes from raises a fundamental question in nature: How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? The collective abilities of such animals—none of which grasps the big picture, but each of which contributes to the group's success—seem miraculous even to the biologists who know them best. Yet during the past few decades, researchers have come up with intriguing insights.

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one's in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Consider the problem of job allocation. In the Arizona desert where Deborah Gordon studies red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), a colony calculates each morning how many workers to send out foraging for food. The number can change, depending on conditions. Have foragers recently discovered a bonanza of tasty seeds? More ants may be needed to haul the bounty home. Was the nest damaged by a storm last night? Additional maintenance workers may be held back to make repairs. An ant might be a nest worker one day, a trash collector the next. But how does a colony make such adjustments if no one's in charge? Gordon has a theory.

Ants communicate by touch and smell. When one ant bumps into another, it sniffs with its antennae to find out if the other belongs to the same nest and where it has been working. (Ants that work outside the nest smell different from those that stay inside.) Before they leave the nest each day, foragers normally wait for early morning patrollers to return. As patrollers enter the nest, they touch antennae briefly with foragers.

"When a forager has contact with a patroller, it's a stimulus for the forager to go out," Gordon says. "But the forager needs several contacts no more than ten seconds apart before it will go out."

To see how this works, Gordon and her collaborator Michael Greene of the University of Colorado at Denver captured patroller ants as they left a nest one morning. After waiting half an hour, they simulated the ants' return by dropping glass beads into the nest entrance at regular intervals—some coated with patroller scent, some with maintenance worker scent, some with no scent. Only the beads coated with patroller scent stimulated foragers to leave the nest. Their conclusion: Foragers use the rate of their encounters with patrollers to tell if it's safe to go out. (If you bump into patrollers at the right rate, it's time to go foraging. If not, better wait. It might be too windy, or there might be a hungry lizard waiting out there.) Once the ants start foraging and bringing back food, other ants join the effort, depending on the rate at which they encounter returning foragers.

"A forager won't come back until it finds something," Gordon says. "The less food there is, the longer it takes the forager to find it and get back. The more food there is, the faster it comes back. So nobody's deciding whether it's a good day to forage. The collective is, but no particular ant is."

That's how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do. Some ant species may go about this with more sophistication than others. (Temnothorax albipennis, for example, can rate the quality of a potential nest site using multiple criteria.) But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required. "Even complex behavior may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions," he says.

Inspired by the elegance of this idea, Marco Dorigo, a computer scientist at the Université Libre in Brussels, used his knowledge of ant behavior in 1991 to create mathematical procedures for solving particularly complex human problems, such as routing trucks, scheduling airlines, or guiding military robots.

In Houston, for example, a company named American Air Liquide has been using an ant-based strategy to manage a complex business problem. The company produces industrial and medical gases, mostly nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, at about a hundred locations in the United States and delivers them to 6,000 sites, using pipelines, railcars, and 400 trucks. Deregulated power markets in some regions (the price of electricity changes every 15 minutes in parts of Texas) add yet another layer of complexity.

"Right now in Houston, the price is $44 a megawatt for an industrial customer," says Charles N. Harper, who oversees the supply system at Air Liquide. "Last night the price went up to $64, and Monday when the cold front came through, it went up to $210." The company needed a way to pull it all together.

Working with the Bios Group (now NuTech Solutions), a firm that specialized in artificial intelligence, Air Liquide developed a computer model based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), a species that deposits chemical substances called pheromones.

"When these ants bring food back to the nest, they lay a pheromone trail that tells other ants to go get more food," Harper explains. "The pheromone trail gets reinforced every time an ant goes out and comes back, kind of like when you wear a trail in the forest to collect wood. So we developed a program that sends out billions of software ants to find out where the pheromone trails are strongest for our truck routes."

Ants had evolved an efficient method to find the best routes in their neighborhoods. Why not follow their example? So Air Liquide combined the ant approach with other artificial intelligence techniques to consider every permutation of plant scheduling, weather, and truck routing—millions of possible decisions and outcomes a day. Every night, forecasts of customer demand and manufacturing costs are fed into the model.

"It takes four hours to run, even with the biggest computers we have," Harper says. "But at six o'clock every morning we get a solution that says how we're going to manage our day."

For truck drivers, the new system took some getting used to. Instead of delivering gas from the plant closest to a customer, as they used to do, drivers were now asked to pick up shipments from whichever plant was making gas at the lowest delivered price, even if it was farther away.

"You want me to drive a hundred miles? To the drivers, it wasn't intuitive," Harper says. But for the company, the savings have been impressive. "It's huge. It's actually huge."

Other companies also have profited by imitating ants. In Italy and Switzerland, fleets of trucks carrying milk and dairy products, heating oil, and groceries all use ant-foraging rules to find the best routes for deliveries. In England and France, telephone companies have made calls go through faster on their networks by programming messages to deposit virtual pheromones at switching stations, just as ants leave signals for other ants to show them the best trails.

In the U.S., Southwest Airlines has tested an ant-based model to improve service at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. With about 200 aircraft a day taking off and landing on two runways and using gates at three concourses, the company wanted to make sure that each plane got in and out as quickly as possible, even if it arrived early or late.

"People don't like being only 500 yards away from a gate and having to sit out there until another aircraft leaves," says Doug Lawson of Southwest. So Lawson created a computer model of the airport, giving each aircraft the ability to remember how long it took to get into and away from each gate. Then he set the model in motion to simulate a day's activity.

"The planes are like ants searching for the best gate," he says. But rather than leaving virtual pheromones along the way, each aircraft remembers the faster gates and forgets the slower ones. After many simulations, using real data to vary arrival and departure times, each plane learned how to avoid an intolerable wait on the tarmac. Southwest was so pleased with the outcome, it may use a similar model to study the ticket counter area.

WHEN IT COMES TO SWARM intelligence, ants aren't the only insects with something useful to teach us. On a small, breezy island off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University, has been looking into the uncanny ability of honeybees to make good decisions. With as many as 50,000 workers in a single hive, honeybees have evolved ways to work through individual differences of opinion to do what's best for the colony. If only people could be as effective in boardrooms, church committees, and town meetings, Seeley says, we could avoid problems making decisions in our own lives.

During the past decade, Seeley, Kirk Visscher of the University of California, Riverside, and others have been studying colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera) to see how they choose a new home. In late spring, when a hive gets too crowded, a colony normally splits, and the queen, some drones, and about half the workers fly a short distance to cluster on a tree branch. There the bees bivouac while a small percentage of them go searching for new real estate. Ideally, the site will be a cavity in a tree, well off the ground, with a small entrance hole facing south, and lots of room inside for brood and honey. Once a colony selects a site, it usually won't move again, so it has to make the right choice.

To find out how, Seeley's team applied paint dots and tiny plastic tags to identify all 4,000 bees in each of several small swarms that they ferried to Appledore Island, home of the Shoals Marine Laboratory. There, in a series of experiments, they released each swarm to locate nest boxes they'd placed on one side of the half-mile-long (one kilometer) island, which has plenty of shrubs but almost no trees or other places for nests.

In one test they put out five nest boxes, four that weren't quite big enough and one that was just about perfect. Scout bees soon appeared at all five. When they returned to the swarm, each performed a waggle dance urging other scouts to go have a look. (These dances include a code giving directions to a box's location.) The strength of each dance reflected the scout's enthusiasm for the site. After a while, dozens of scouts were dancing their little feet off, some for one site, some for another, and a small cloud of bees was buzzing around each box.

The decisive moment didn't take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.

"It was a race," Seeley says. "Which site was going to build up 15 bees first?"

Scouts from the chosen box then spread through the swarm, signaling that it was time to move. Once all the bees had warmed up, they lifted off for their new home, which, to no one's surprise, turned out to be the best of the five boxes.

The bees' rules for decision-making—seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices—so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department.

"I've applied what I've learned from the bees to run faculty meetings," he says. To avoid going into a meeting with his mind made up, hearing only what he wants to hear, and pressuring people to conform, Seeley asks his group to identify all the possibilities, kick their ideas around for a while, then vote by secret ballot. "It's exactly what the swarm bees do, which gives a group time to let the best ideas emerge and win. People are usually quite amenable to that."

In fact, almost any group that follows the bees' rules will make itself smarter, says James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. "The analogy is really quite powerful. The bees are predicting which nest site will be best, and humans can do the same thing, even in the face of exceptionally complex decisions." Investors in the stock market, scientists on a research project, even kids at a county fair guessing the number of beans in a jar can be smart groups, he says, if their members are diverse, independent minded, and use a mechanism such as voting, auctioning, or averaging to reach a collective decision.

Take bettors at a horse race. Why are they so accurate at predicting the outcome of a race? At the moment the horses leave the starting gate, the odds posted on the pari-mutuel board, which are calculated from all bets put down, almost always predict the race's outcome: Horses with the lowest odds normally finish first, those with second lowest odds finish second, and so on. The reason, Surowiecki says, is that pari-mutuel betting is a nearly perfect machine for tapping into the wisdom of the crowd.

"If you ever go to the track, you find a really diverse group, experts who spend all day perusing daily race forms, people who know something about some kinds of horses, and others who are betting at random, like the woman who only likes black horses," he says. Like bees trying to make a decision, bettors gather all kinds of information, disagree with one another, and distill their collective judgment when they place their bets.

That's why it's so rare to win on a long shot.

THERE'S A SMALL PARK near the White House in Washington, D.C., where I like to watch flocks of pigeons swirl over the traffic and trees. Sooner or later, the birds come to rest on ledges of buildings surrounding the park. Then something disrupts them, and they're off again in synchronized flight.

The birds don't have a leader. No pigeon is telling the others what to do. Instead, they're each paying close attention to the pigeons next to them, each bird following simple rules as they wheel across the sky. These rules add up to another kind of swarm intelligence—one that has less to do with making decisions than with precisely coordinating movement.

Craig Reynolds, a computer graphics researcher, was curious about what these rules might be. So in 1986 he created a deceptively simple steering program called boids. In this simulation, generic birdlike objects, or boids, were each given three instructions: 1) avoid crowding nearby boids, 2) fly in the average direction of nearby boids, and 3) stay close to nearby boids. The result, when set in motion on a computer screen, was a convincing simulation of flocking, including lifelike and unpredictable movements.

At the time, Reynolds was looking for ways to depict animals realistically in TV shows and films. (Batman Returns in 1992 was the first movie to use his approach, portraying a swarm of bats and an army of penguins.) Today he works at Sony doing research for games, such as an algorithm that simulates in real time as many as 15,000 interacting birds, fish, or people.

By demonstrating the power of self-organizing models to mimic swarm behavior, Reynolds was also blazing the trail for robotics engineers. A team of robots that could coordinate its actions like a flock of birds could offer significant advantages over a solitary robot. Spread out over a large area, a group could function as a powerful mobile sensor net, gathering information about what's out there. If the group encountered something unexpected, it could adjust and respond quickly, even if the robots in the group weren't very sophisticated, just as ants are able to come up with various options by trial and error. If one member of the group were to break down, others could take its place. And, most important, control of the group could be decentralized, not dependent on a leader.

"In biology, if you look at groups with large numbers, there are very few examples where you have a central agent," says Vijay Kumar, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. "Everything is very distributed: They don't all talk to each other. They act on local information. And they're all anonymous. I don't care who moves the chair, as long as somebody moves the chair. To go from one robot to multiple robots, you need all three of those ideas."

Within five years Kumar hopes to put a networked team of robotic vehicles in the field. One purpose might be as first responders. "Let's say there's a 911 call," he says. "The fire alarm goes off. You don't want humans to respond. You want machines to respond, to tell you what's happening. Before you send firemen into a burning building, why not send in a group of robots?"

Taking this idea one step further, Marco Dorigo's group in Brussels is leading a European effort to create a "swarmanoid," a group of cooperating robots with complementary abilities: "foot-bots" to transport things on the ground, "hand-bots" to climb walls and manipulate objects, and "eye-bots" to fly around, providing information to the other units.

The military is eager to acquire similar capabilities. On January 20, 2004, researchers released a swarm of 66 pint-size robots into an empty office building at Fort A. P. Hill, a training center near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The mission: Find targets hidden in the building.

Zipping down the main hallway, the foot-long (0.3 meter) red robots pivoted this way and that on their three wheels, resembling nothing so much as large insects. Eight sonars on each unit helped them avoid collisions with walls and other robots. As they spread out, entering one room after another, each robot searched for objects of interest with a small, Web-style camera. When one robot encountered another, it used wireless network gear to exchange information. ("Hey, I've already explored that part of the building. Look somewhere else.")

In the back of one room, a robot spotted something suspicious: a pink ball in an open closet (the swarm had been trained to look for anything pink). The robot froze, sending an image to its human supervisor. Soon several more robots arrived to form a perimeter around the pink intruder. Within half an hour, all six of the hidden objects had been found. The research team conducting the experiment declared the run a success. Then they started a new test.

The demonstration was part of the Centibots project, an investigation to see if as many as a hundred robots could collaborate on a mission. If they could, teams of robots might someday be sent into a hostile village to flush out terrorists or locate prisoners; into an earthquake-damaged building to find victims; onto chemical-spill sites to examine hazardous waste; or along borders to watch for intruders. Military agencies such as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) have funded a number of robotics programs using collaborative flocks of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, schools of torpedo-shaped underwater gliders, and herds of unmanned ground vehicles. But at the time, this was the largest swarm of robots ever tested.

"When we started Centibots, we were all thinking, this is a crazy idea, it's impossible to do," says Régis Vincent, a researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. "Now we're looking to see if we can do it with a thousand robots."

IN NATURE, OF COURSE, animals travel in even larger numbers. That's because, as members of a big group, whether it's a flock, school, or herd, individuals increase their chances of detecting predators, finding food, locating a mate, or following a migration route. For these animals, coordinating their movements with one another can be a matter of life or death.

"It's much harder for a predator to avoid being spotted by a thousand fish than it is to avoid being spotted by one," says Daniel Grünbaum, a biologist at the University of Washington. "News that a predator is approaching spreads quickly through a school because fish sense from their neighbors that something's going on."

When a predator strikes a school of fish, the group is capable of scattering in patterns that make it almost impossible to track any individual. It might explode in a flash, create a kind of moving bubble around the predator, or fracture into multiple blobs, before coming back together and swimming away.

Animals on land do much the same, as Karsten Heuer, a wildlife biologist, observed in 2003, when he and his wife, Leanne Allison, followed the vast Porcupine caribou herd (Rangifer tarandus granti) for five months. Traveling more than a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) with the animals, they documented the migration from winter range in Canada's northern Yukon Territory to calving grounds in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"It's difficult to describe in words, but when the herd was on the move it looked very much like a cloud shadow passing over the landscape, or a mass of dominoes toppling over at the same time and changing direction," Karsten says. "It was as though every animal knew what its neighbor was going to do, and the neighbor beside that and beside that. There was no anticipation or reaction. No cause and effect. It just was."

One day, as the herd funneled through a gully at the tree line, Karsten and Leanne spotted a wolf creeping up. The herd responded with a classic swarm defense.

"As soon as the wolf got within a certain distance of the caribou, the herd's alertness just skyrocketed," Karsten says. "Now there was no movement. Every animal just stopped, completely vigilant and watching." A hundred yards (90 meters) closer, and the wolf crossed another threshold. "The nearest caribou turned and ran, and that response moved like a wave through the entire herd until they were all running. Reaction times shifted into another realm. Animals closest to the wolf at the back end of the herd looked like a blanket unraveling and tattering, which, from the wolf's perspective, must have been extremely confusing." The wolf chased one caribou after another, losing ground with each change of target. In the end, the herd escaped over the ridge, and the wolf was left panting and gulping snow.

For each caribou, the stakes couldn't have been higher, yet the herd's evasive maneuvers displayed not panic but precision. (Imagine the chaos if a hungry wolf were released into a crowd of people.) Every caribou knew when it was time to run and in which direction to go, even if it didn't know exactly why. No leader was responsible for coordinating the rest of the herd. Instead each animal was following simple rules evolved over thousands of years of wolf attacks.

That's the wonderful appeal of swarm intelligence. Whether we're talking about ants, bees, pigeons, or caribou, the ingredients of smart group behavior—decentralized control, response to local cues, simple rules of thumb—add up to a shrewd strategy to cope with complexity.

"We don't even know yet what else we can do with this," says Eric Bonabeau, a complexity theorist and the chief scientist at Icosystem Corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We're not used to solving decentralized problems in a decentralized way. We can't control an emergent phenomenon like traffic by putting stop signs and lights everywhere. But the idea of shaping traffic as a self-organizing system, that's very exciting."

Social and political groups have already adopted crude swarm tactics. During mass protests eight years ago in Seattle, anti-globalization activists used mobile communications devices to spread news quickly about police movements, turning an otherwise unruly crowd into a "smart mob" that was able to disperse and re-form like a school of fish.

The biggest changes may be on the Internet. Consider the way Google uses group smarts to find what you're looking for. When you type in a search query, Google surveys billions of Web pages on its index servers to identify the most relevant ones. It then ranks them by the number of pages that link to them, counting links as votes (the most popular sites get weighted votes, since they're more likely to be reliable). The pages that receive the most votes are listed first in the search results. In this way, Google says, it "uses the collective intelligence of the Web to determine a page's importance."

Wikipedia, a free collaborative encyclopedia, has also proved to be a big success, with millions of articles in more than 200 languages about everything under the sun, each of which can be contributed by anyone or edited by anyone. "It's now possible for huge numbers of people to think together in ways we never imagined a few decades ago," says Thomas Malone of MIT's new Center for Collective Intelligence. "No single person knows everything that's needed to deal with problems we face as a society, such as health care or climate change, but collectively we know far more than we've been able to tap so far."

Such thoughts underline an important truth about collective intelligence: Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won't be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do. When a group is being intelligent, whether it's made up of ants or attorneys, it relies on its members to do their own part. For those of us who sometimes wonder if it's really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don't see how.

Think about a honeybee as she walks around inside the hive. If a cold wind hits the hive, she'll shiver to generate heat and, in the process, help to warm the nearby brood. She has no idea that hundreds of workers in other parts of the hive are doing the same thing at the same time to the benefit of the next generation.

"A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do," says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. "None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign."

If you're looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.