Editor’s Note: This is an original draft of an article that was first published in
New Scientist entitled “One rule of life: Are we posted on the border of order?”.
It’s not the midges that were the problem, says Andrea Cavagna
, but the kids. You’d think his efforts to record the movements of midge swarms in the public parks of Rome near sunset would be fraught with risks of being eaten alive by the little beasts — but these were a non-biting variety. Keeping away the children who gathered to watch what these folks were up to with their video cameras, generators and thickets of cabling was another matter. That, and the problem of finding a parking space in central Rome.
It’s not easy, he realised, for a physicist to turn field biologist.
The reason why Cavagna, based at Sapienza University in Rome, and his colleagues went midge-hunting sounds strange, perhaps even bizarre. The researchers wanted to know if midges behave like magnets. More specifically, if they act like magnets close to the point where heat flips them between a magnetic and non-magnetic state: a so-called critical phase transition.
“It’s a delicate balance: you need stability, but also responsiveness.”
&nbs... Read more