Flying in Formation

Yesterday I gave a seminar at Simon Fraser University, where I participate in a weekly meeting of the biophysics group. We've been taking turns reviewing recent journal articles we find interesting and relevant to our research, and I found a captivating publication by a multidisciplinary group from Europe to discuss and evaluate. Perhaps many readers of this blog have been, like me, struck by the amazing ways in which some birds exhibit synchronized flying. While this can be seen with just a few pigeons in Milner, or a few hundred sandpipers at Crescent Beach, the STARFLAG group studies starlings which put on astonishing displays daily as dusk in Rome in flocks of several thousand. It's been known for some time that their collective behaviour is not duFront Cover of Physics Today, October 2007e to following a leader (as it is for Canada geese in their V-shaped migration gaggles), and scientists have pooled their respective skills in mathematics, physics, biology, and computing science to actually measure and analyze 3-D bird positions as a function of time, concluding that each bird correlates its flight with its 6 or 7 nearest neighbours.

In reading their article, I became familiar with their observational and analytical techniques, and had opportunity to critique them as well. Since this is a relatively new field, no one has particular expertise in it directly, but people's backgrounds are important. In my case, my graduate research in magnetism and superconductivity, phase transitions, and quantum field theory, coupled with my recent teaching of a classical mechanics course, led me to a more accurate and robust calculation one could perform on their data. I am particularly excited about studies like this which readily capture public interest, involve researchers of various field of science, and build on my theoretical physics background. Much work remains to be done on the data the group has collected, and I'm hoping that my contribution will be valuable.

I'm convinced that in addition to whatever biological reasons there are for these displays (such as predator avoidance and warming bodies in preparation for overnight roosting), these flocks are responding aesthetically in grateful obedience to the call of their Creator: "Praise the LORD from the earth, you...flying birds" (Ps. 148:7-10, NIV). The sheer wonder of observing this avian ballet (see some on YouTube) is an excellent complement to the joy of discovery when the flight patterns are described and explained mathematically, just as many Trinity Western students experience in our science classes from introductory biology to advanced physical chemistry.

Last updated Jun. 26th, 2008 at 2:24pm by Arnold Sikkema