Amazing Starling Flocks Are Flying Avalanches

Brandon Keim,, May 20, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

I'm giving a talk on MOOC research on Friday, and while I've previously documented my thoughts on research methods (or the lack of same) the question nonetheless occurred to me, "how do you research chaotic systems like MOOCs?" Analytics aren't really useful, as numbers and quantities are essentially meaningless. Then I wondered, how do scientists research murmurations? These are flocks of songbirds that act as one fluid whole, like a network.

I'm still looking into it, but here are some things. This post gives the overview. "The secret lies in the same systems that apply to anything on the cusp of a shift, like snow before an avalanche, where the velocity of one bird affects the velocity of the rest. It is called 'scale-free correlation' and every shift of the murmuration is called a critical transition." Here's the paper. The topic is also covered by MNN, which makes the mechanics clear. "Each bird is actually reacting to the birds nearest to it, that the movement is the result of a series of short-range reactions... one bird's movement only affects its seven closest neighbors. So one bird affects its seven closest neighbors, and each of those neighbors' movements affect their closest seven neighbors and on through the flock."

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