Philip Ball

Crossing Borders 2017 | 31 October, 7 - 8.30pm | Self-organized motion: the choreography of nature

The natural world is full of examples of motions that are highly coordinated between many individual organisms. The flocking of birds and the swarming of fish schools exhibit breathtaking coordination between many members of a group. This kind of coherent, collective movement is seen too in movements of single-celled organisms such as slime molds, while social insects such as ants and termites use it to collaborate in laying foraging trails or building nests. Over the past few decades, scientists have come to understand that these group movements do not need leaders: they are examples of "self-organization", meaning that they arise without any pre-ordained plan or blueprint. All that is needed are local rules about how individuals respond to their neighbours. Self-organized motion is also seen in human society, for example in crowd motion, road traffic and the formation of trails over open ground. Can the rules therefore be used deliberately to induce visually stimulating modes of collective movement? Can self-organization be turned towards creative ends? In this talk I will explain what is understood about its origins, and point towards possible directions in which these questions might be taken.


Philip Ball is a writer and author, and was previously an editor of the science journal Nature for many years. He writes widely on the sciences and their interactions with the broader culture and with the arts. His books include Critical Mass, Curiosity, Invisible and, most recently, The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China.