The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life
by Len Fisher. Basic Books, 2009
Next time you get annoyed when you discover an army of ants marching through your kitchen pantry, think about this: these tiny insects could teach you how to make better decisions in your social, private and professional life. Sounds crazy? Not according to scientist and journalist Len Fisher. In his new book, The Perfect Swarm, he introduces us to the modern science of complexity—how intricate patterns grow out of simple rules. Research shows that such rules underlie the group behaviors of animals, such as bees and locusts, and Fisher explains how we can learn a thing or two from these basic laws.
At the heart of the book lies swarm intelligence, a phenomenon that results when large groups of individuals—be they robots or guppies—behave in the same way, and their collective actions (presumably unbeknownst to the individuals) become intelligent. Ant colonies provide a good example, Fisher says. In search of food, individual ants initially roam an area at random. Yet those animals that happen to be on the fastest route to a food source will return to the nest first. The pheromones they lay down on their trail then allow other ants to use that same route. By the time the remaining pioneers return to the nest, more animals will have already laid down more pheromones on the fastest route, which quickly becomes the predominant one.
When the delivery company UPS wanted to optimize its daily driving routes, it followed the ants’ lead, Fisher says, prompting drivers to learn from one another “in a way similar to ant colony routing.” Using this tactic, a simple pattern emerged—trips were fastest and least accident-prone when they contained as many right turns as possible. According to Fisher, following that rule led to three million gallons of fuel savings for the company in 2006 alone and would result in tremendous savings for every one of us.
Unfortunately, not all of Fisher’s examples are equally interesting, often amounting to little more than common sense. For example, simulations show that when crowds of people try to move through a narrow exit, the exit gets plugged. At other times, the advice Fisher distills from research findings seems impractical in real-life situations. But despite these shortcomings The Perfect Swarm is entertaining and makes an engaging read for anyone interested in learning about the rules that govern our complex lives.