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?”

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