The Perfect Swarm - Len Fisher
The Perfect Swarm is one of a crop of books that explore the emerging scientific thinking of complexity and order. The subtitle ‘The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life’ and the somewhat playful book title hint that this is one of the more populist books on the subject.
Fisher covers a broad spectrum of subjects and around 30% of the book is devoted to an extensive list of notes which provide further avenues to explore for further information.
Our natural instinct may be to believe that order is the product of control, after all it tends to be the way in which we engineer it. Seeing a flock of birds or shoal of fish, we might imagine that their synchronised behaviour results from a leader issuing commands to be observed by the followers.
Fisher begins by describing how the seemingly complex behaviours we observe can be simulated by systems with remarkably simple rules followed by all participants, with no leadership role existing. For example shoals of fish can be simulated using only three criteria, avoidance, alignment and attraction.
Fisher describes similar criteria to explain the behaviour of swarming bees, locusts and ants. In each case complex patterns emerge from simple rules with no need for the leadership structures we might expect to see.
Particle swarm optimisation is a technique that combines the attributes found in nature and forms the basis for novel decision making techniques with surprisingly good performance.
Fisher then examines how democracy has, perhaps through a process of unwitting evolution, adopted many of the techniques that we are now observing in nature.
Though not as robust in its arguments as some of the books on the subject, it’s an entertaining read and contains a number of valuable insights. The comprehensive notes and references make this an easy read that might provide pointers to a more rigourous exploration if the ideas take hold.
Steve Unwin September 2011