Big Lessons from Small Creatures

The Secret Science Club is not your average science talk. It’s held at the Bell House, a hip Brooklyn bar and music venue that from the outside looks like it might hold 300 eager science fans. The atmosphere is laid back, with the audience sipping the night’s themed cocktail, the “Perfect Swarm,” and the speaker, biologist Simon Garnier, drinking beer onstage as he wins over the crowd with videos of puppies and summary tweets.

Garnier, director of the SwarmLab, studies what he calls “Swarm Intelligence,” the ability of animals to self-organize efficiently. He focused on one of his major areas of study, slime mold, a multi-nucleated single cell that—minus a brain— makes decisions and solves problems in its search for food. He calls this the “Homer Simpson paradox,” using the “brainless” cartoon character—who Garnier argues is successful because he has a good job that pays enough to support a family. Garnier points out that Homer Simpson and slime mold commonly prompt the same question: “How can an organism without many neural cells make good decisions and end up successful?”

Garnier went on to talk about his study of Eciton ants, also called army ants. Despite having fewer neurons than a pinky finger, army ants have incredible organizational skills, frequently moving their nests quickly in very large groups that cover the forest floor, he said. In order to travel more efficiently, they use their bodies to form bridges across gaps, and can even move the bridges to deal with heavier traffic [see video below].

Finally, Garnier related his research findings to human behavior, specifically traffic patterns. He wondered why, if species with very few neural cells can make good decisions, self-organize effectively, and travel efficiently, humans still struggle with traffic.  He argues that we have exceeded the critical density of cars and need more space efficient vehicles. In addition, we also need more intelligent city and traffic light design, and could look to the self-organization of slime mold or ants as inspiration. At the end of the talk, Garnier invited the audience to post his final summary tweet: “I, for one, welcome our new ant overlords. May they fix the FDR and the Tappan Zee Bridge.”

If you want a fun, informative night out, the Secret Science Club holds monthly science events.

– Ali Chunovic

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