The Perfect Swarm

14th January 2010

Fisher’s theme in The Perfect Swarm is ‘The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life.’ He examines the way very simple rules of interaction lead to the self-organisation that makes pretty patterns in a layer of warm liquid, gives a shoal of fish the appearance of having a group intelligence, and explains the behaviour of human crowds.

The “intelligent” fish, for example, are following the simple rules ‘keep your distance’, ‘follow the fish in front’, and ‘keep pace with the fish next to you’. People follow much the same rules, an insight which provides practical solutions to problems such as designing exits at sports stadiums.

There is much more to this delightful book, but my favourite section deals with the kind of group intelligence that operates on the show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? If you have a choice, you’re far better off asking the audience than phoning a friend. From this and other studies, Fisher makes a compelling case that legal justice would be better served if each juror heard the evidence in isolation, and voted guilty or not guilty independently. He certainly convinced me.

This would be my nominee for book of the year, if it wasn’t still only January. Who knows what may turn up in the next 12 months? Whatever it is, though, will find Fisher a hard act to follow.

Dr John Gribbin is the author of Deep Simplicity

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Price: £13.99