Statistical physics is for the birds

Toni Feder in Physics Today:

28_1fig2At dusk each winter evening, millions of starlings fly in from the countryside to their roosting sites in Rome and, before settling into trees for the night, “they spend something like 20 minutes doing these incredible aerial displays. It’s a truly amazing sight,” says Andrea Cavagna, a statistical physicist at Italy’s National Institute for the Physics of Condensed Matter (INFM). “If you watch a flock of starlings under attack by a predator, they split, merge, and do all these incredible maneuvers to confuse the predator. How can they keep cohesion in the face of that strong perturbation—the attack?”

Inspired by the aerial displays, a group of scientists led by theoretical physicists in Rome set up StarFlag, a multidisciplinary, multinational collaboration to study the birds’ flocking behavior. The main aim was to determine “the fundamental laws of collective behavior and self-organization of animal aggregations in three dimensions,” says Cavagna, the project’s deputy coordinator.

More here.