I’ve been having a lot of fun the past few days reading a variety of different books, including How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and – most recently – The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller.
I will be writing reviews on the first two books as soon as I get a free moment – the reason I decided to write up The Smart Swarm first is that a friend of mine is really anxious to borrow it off me, and I don’t blame him because it’s a really great read.
Generally speaking we (humans) tend to organize ourselves in a hierarchical manner. Someone “at the top” is in charge, and their decisions, directions, and instructions ripple downhill through various levels of the organization until they reach the bottom of the pile (which is where you’ll typically find me hanging out).
We have, of course, achieved astounding things in this way, from the Great Wall of China to constructing massive dams, to building ginormous skyscrapers, to taking men to the moon (and bringing them back again). Just consider the government and various infrastructure organizations required to keep a country like America humming along. Having said this, in some cases our hierarchical organizations and our tendency to partition problems can cause us to drop the ball and mess up in all sorts of ways.
And so we come to consider insects like termites – Macrotermes michaelseni, for example – whose towers can stand ten feet or higher on the African savannah. The roughly spherical nest itself is about three to four feet in diameter and is normally located just below ground level. The tower acts like a giant lung (the colony can consume as much oxygen as a small cow), capturing wind to ventilate the mound and conveying carbon dioxide and water to the outside world.
When researchers created a 3D image of a complete termite mound (the process they used will blow you away), they were amazed by what it showed. The network of tunnels and air passageways inside was “as complex as a Chinese puzzle ball carved from ivory.” Of particular interest were special large tunnels inside the mound forming a network of organ pipe-like chambers that resonate when turbulent winds blow past the tower and convert the “nuisance” energy in the turbulent airflow into “wind-power gold.”
But how can creatures no more than a quarter of an inch in length – with minimal brainpower and little or no vision – create structures of such complexity and sophistication? It turns out that each termite follows only a small number of very simple rules and collaborates indirectly with its fellows, but the results are truly astounding (you’ll have to read the book to get a better understanding of this).
The Smart Swarm takes an in-depth look at Ants, Honeybees, Termites, Flocks of Birds, Schools of Fish, Herds of Caribou, and so forth. By studying, analyzing, and understanding the simple governing rules used by these various creatures, computer scientists have written computer programs that can solve complex problems and streamline things from factory processes to telephone networks to truck routes, with possibilities for so much more…
The bottom line is that this is a very interesting and well-written book; the author has an engaging, easy-to-read, conversational style that informs, entertains, and offers numerous surprises in this thought-provoking study of problem making and problem-solving.