Another biologist – Ian Couzin – has been doing similar work at Princeton University and has found, through computer simulations and mathematical algorithms, that there are indeed many similarities between different levels of organization in nature. It is essentially a biological criticality: when a neighbor moves, so do you. It’s a system that is poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed.
Something else that surfaced in my mind while watching the murmurations was the work of an artist named Ruth Asawa, whose work I’d recently seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Asawa is an artist who learned to draw in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II and later earned renown weaving wire into intricate, flowing, fanciful abstract sculptures. She started using wire after a trip to Mexico in 1947, and used the craftsmanship she had learned from Mexican basket makers as well as her ambition to extend line drawings into a third dimension. In 1958, The New York Times wrote of her sculptures’ “gossamer lightness” and the way “the circular and oval shapes seem like magic lanterns, one within the other.” In a way, I think these adjectives perfectly describe the starling murmurations as well.
Thus whether we are looking at birds or humans, sculptures or superorganisms, there are some elements which remain undeniably the same – organization, fluctuation, and variability, to name a few. And by viewing Asawa’s hanging mobiles and the starling murmurations side by side, I think it becomes clear that the dichotomy between art and science may not be as rigid as it seems.
Guest blogger: K.S. Mediratta