into the science of swarms


These pages are an invitation into the science and aesthetics of fireflies. Not so much the individual lightning bug, Some say "fireflies", others "lightning bugs". The split is mostly regional. but rather the breathing and beating form they take when they swarm together.

Fireflies are sociable insects, and over their short life as a flashing adult they congregate to find a mate and reproduce. Traditionally, males blink brightly to scout and advertise. Females are discreet, often stationary, and might respond selectively. A courtship dialogue ensues, and the rest is history. Together, they create collective light patterns that are often disorganized, sometimes synchronous, but always mesmerizing – if not mystifying.

That's what we will explore here: the collective behavior of fireflies. Like flocks of starlings, schools of sardines or herds of sheep, firefly swarms constitute a kind of super-organism that is more than the sum of its parts. Social interactions give rise to an emergent dynamics that is neither controlled nor predicted by any single individual in the group. This idea is not new and has been noticed by many before, in various forms. Consider for example these lines from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:
- Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
- No, you're wrong here – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. [...]

Physicists have long been intrigued by emergence, a concept often condensed into the idea that "more is different." What started as a framework for the statistical properties of microscopic inanimate matter has recently been extended to groups of mobile, thinking entities. A physics perspective on collective animal behavior is an enlightening review on this topic.

So let's step into the sparkling obscurity and wonder what dots in the night can tell us about the social life of fireflies, and maybe also what fireflies can illuminate about our own gregariousness and collective mechanisms.

Along the path, we will also explore sociological and cultural aspects of the relationship of humans to fireflies, nature and the night through short stories. As with most things in life, this is an ever-unfinished and evolving project. Comments and suggestions are always welcome.

blue ghost