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Emergence

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Emergence (modomatic/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

What happens when there is no leader? Starlings, bees, and ants manage just fine. In fact, they form staggeringly complicated societies -- all without a Toscanini to conduct them into harmony. This hour of Radiolab, we ask how this happens.

We gaze down at the bottom-up logic of cities, Google, and even our very own brains with fire-flyologists, ant experts, neurologists, a mathematician, and an economist.

Guests:

Elizabeth Buck, John Buck, Debra Gordon, Stephen Johnson, Christof Koch, Dr. Oliver Sacks, Steve Strogatz, James Surowiecki and E.O. Wilson

There is No Lord of the (Fire)Flies

We begin in Thailand, watching fireflies glow in glorious synchrony, lighting up miles of mangrove trees like Christmas trees. Next...it’s off to Stanford University to contemplate the bottomless mystery of ants, a mystery which culminates in New York City’s flower market (ever wondered what ants can teach us about human ...

Comments [14]

The Invisible Hand

In 1776, writer Adam Smith came up with a theory: when lots of buyers and lots of sellers get together, the resulting "market price" that emerges through all that buying and selling is in fact the work of an "invisible hand." He meant god. We think he really meant "emergence." ...

Comments [6]

The Unconscious Toscanini of the Brain

How does the brain produce a thought? Or experience a unitary, whole, synchronized perception of a cup of coffee? For neuroscientists, this is the Mount Everest of questions. We have a look at one possible theory (that a thought is like lots of little neurons singing together in harmony) and ...

Comments [5]

Comments [60]

Aram deKoven from Afton, MN

Out of randomness appears a pattern.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1tmuq8xufo

Nov. 10 2013 10:12 PM
Ed

I was going to comment here and mention that this episode missed a great opportunity to talk about our innate reward system, then I realized this was originally made over 5 years ago... The downside of rebroadcasting science-y shows for many years is that science progresses, but old information gets reinforced in the listeners mind, and the opportunity for new information to be spread is lost. Shameful, in a way.

Nov. 10 2013 01:57 PM
Robert from New York

Common Law supersedes all other laws. Enough said.

Nov. 10 2013 12:21 AM
Linda Z from Holderness, NH

Enjoyed this show. The order that living creatures find is amazing, seemingly by instinct. Few days ago I watched a flock of birds swirling back & forth, up & down, until they all suddenly landed in 2 trees, with no collisions. Order in inanimate things boggles my mind. Stars in galaxies, galaxies in clusters... I used to have a top loading washer. I added dilute chlorine bleach in a cup after the washer filled, so the agitation mixed it. If I wanted more bleach, I used 2 cups & EVERY time at the end of the cycle they were nestled together. Intuition tells us everything should be random, but, everywhere we look - order!

Nov. 10 2013 12:20 AM
Chris

I was a philosophy major in college with a particular interest in how the appearance of complexity can result from 'dumb' objects obeying a small number of very limited rules (ie: ants, neurons, etc.), and this show really got me to question a lot of the beliefs regarding to possible necessity of a 'creator' that I'd arrived at in school and which I've been living my life according to since. Great show!

BTW: I love the caller-ins reading the credits. Keep it up!

Nov. 08 2013 10:44 PM
spencer from Texas

Please, please, please, never let anyone sing the credits over the phone like that ever ever ever again. That is painful every single time I hear it. Otherwise- great show- really love it.

Nov. 03 2013 04:12 PM
Ross from FL

This podcast basically backed up my whole theory that if humanity put all their puzzle pieces together in relation to questions we seek answers from, we'd have a better understanding of things hands down! We need to stop hogging our puzzle pieces and make sense of the things we know or think together. As to the whole woman saying how she has no empathy for ants, made me think how cocky we are as a species, I'm sure if another advanced species lived in the universe they would observe us and have no empathy towards us either. Unless they are so advanced THAT... and to the people complaining, if you're not making any monetary contribution then keep the complaints to yourself!

Apr. 22 2013 10:44 PM
Stefan from FIU

COFFFFEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE lol.

Mar. 21 2013 12:51 PM
Elissa

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and your views are fastidious for new people.

Mar. 07 2013 03:50 AM
Marylyn

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Will you kindly drop me a e-mail?

Mar. 07 2013 03:30 AM
ami porges

An incredible episode.
The nascent seasons of Radio Lab were some of the greatest compilations of artistry, entertainment, and discovery that I've experienced. This show, in particular, poetically weaves a complex theory together. I'm grateful that shows like this exist, and heartened that others find it as extraordinary as I do.

Jan. 05 2013 05:49 PM

This was the first radiolab episode I experienced many years ago. I was out on a long walk with my headphones on just listening to whatever was on NPR. I was instantly completely hooked. I've listened to it again many times since then, and it is still by far my favorite of them all. (I think Space it prolly my second favorite). Please keep up the great work!

Dec. 21 2012 02:32 PM

This one brought me to tears. It is truly amazing how we work together, that it is imperative that we work together. I love being reminded that we ARE a unit, that we ARE a community...not just a self. Also, thanks to Robert for having a heart and mind open for expressing what is unfathomable, "Holy."

Sep. 22 2012 08:27 AM
Lila Flood from Hawaii

I am new to Radio Lab. Emergence was only my second show. I want to say how grateful I am that such a show exists. Also, I want to thank Robert Krulwich for being willing to use the word "Holy" in regards to the amazing things that were being discussed. Science and mysticism
have no contadictions in my world!!!

In gratitude,
Lila Flood

Sep. 20 2012 02:49 AM
jim from toronto

One of the best episodes ever! BTW, Steven you are #2 in my search, behind Spielberg.

Sep. 18 2012 02:01 PM
phunt

Very interesting program. Some quantum physicists (ex:Bohm and Goswami) theorize that rather than consciousness being produced by brain chemistry, consciousness came first is the ground of all being. The eastern religions have it right.

Sep. 16 2012 10:11 PM
Matt S. from Rural Southeast Wisconsin, America

This thinking about "emergence" casts doubt on the whole authoritarian enterprise of government in the form of The State and its handmaiden, social science. It's not The Rule of Experts that we need to look to, rather it is The Wisdom of Crowds to which we should look to for ideas to advance the human condition.

Sep. 16 2012 01:18 PM
marcb

Excellent program. It's a subject I've been fascinated with for as long as I can remember. If a group of "dumb" ants, or neurons exhibit intelligent behavior, imagine what a group of "dumb" planets, stars and galaxies might be accomplishing. We'll never know.

Sep. 16 2012 02:06 AM
Billy Donahue from New York

Krulwich does not have "trillions and trillions of neurons". The human body is about 3 trillion cells total. This was repeated a few times during the show. Normal human brains have 100 billion neurons or so. Do your homework, guys!

Sep. 16 2012 12:54 AM
Jessie from Way Uptown

Silly, but you know,.... if the shapes of cities are created by the same process as the shapes created by ants, then... the implication is that the ants are doing what we call "learning".

In fact that does check out, again and again, watching how the forms of all animal behavior come from their *active foraging and dodging* as an innate learning activity, how the organization of the whole forms to fit the world it's in... Apparently it doesn't' really need a "brain" to have images of what is being learned, but just recorded experientially.

There are LOTS of ways to recognize how active learning is what shapes the choices organisms (including humans)*discover* what to do.

synapse9.com/signals

Sep. 15 2012 06:28 PM

Is there video of the students singing "coffee?" It's great!!! ^_^

Sep. 15 2012 04:17 PM

Please DON'T leave out the "holy" in future programs!!! It brought tears to my eyes. I love science & I believe in the Holy! (Not all Christians think the moon emits light!!!) I have not yet listened to the whole broadcast, just happened across it while in the car on an errand (like an ant to sugar ^_^) and ended up listening in the driveway. Now I've found you online and can hear the beginning! Keep up the beatiful, balanced work!

Sep. 15 2012 02:20 PM
April from Manhattan

More than 2,500 years ago Buddha said there is no abiding entity. No independent ego. All arises dependently. Everything is impermanent. The only two things that are certain that we'll die and the time of death is uncertain. No god. Read The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom.

Sep. 15 2012 12:58 PM
Sterling from Manhattan

Check out the fabulous Vi Hart on a related topic of how plants organize themselves.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14-NdQwKz9w

Sep. 15 2012 12:35 PM
April Wolff from Manhattan

Dont' get all spiritual on this account, contact my genius brother, Roger White, an expert on chaos and complexity in urban systems. He's in Belgium now working on exactly this cup of tea, so contact me, and I'll give you his email. I'm in the phone book.

Sep. 15 2012 12:28 PM

VIVA RE_BROADCASTING AND RE_RE_BROADCASTING and so on, AND RECYCLING MY OWN AND ANYBODY ELSES MATERIAL AND WHAT NOT
and braking down the intelectual property just like that

Sep. 15 2012 05:20 AM

your converse with Christof Koch and the math guy before him is just cute

great show, i had forgotten it

Sep. 15 2012 05:03 AM
Adam Dabrowski from Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

Regarding the Emergence episode, I found it interesting that the woman who studied ants held the sentiment that they were "mindless", I can't help but wonder if our own activity appears they same to an outside observer. She also makes a statement that they don't feel good when they achieve something, I don't think we have established that yet.

I always enjoy the show, I listen to it with my girlfriend who is Japanese. It provides really great conversation material and it keeps her listening skills sharp. Thanks guys!

Sep. 15 2012 01:23 AM
Jonny Eberle from Flagstaff

I couldn't even wait for the episode to be over before I commented. This is brilliant — one of your most masterful pieces. Keep up the mindblowing work!

Sep. 14 2012 09:56 PM
DougW

For a different take on the future, I suggest the book CITY by Clifford D. Simak. Published circa 1945 and now available as an e-book. Barnes and Noble's overview follows:

A GREAT SCIENCE-FICTION CLASSIC
"Here is an utterly enthralling science-fiction novel that spans 10,000 years of future adventures, human hopes, and super-human achievements. The story of one family, the Websters—and also of the Webster dogs and robots—it is narrated in the form of eight long sequences, each showing a further and more wonderful development. Humanity moves from the culture of the super-city of the near future to the sprawling spaces of a robot-run society, and finally finds its Golden Age on the mighty planet Jupiter—leaving the Earth as the heritage of man's best friends.

"City weaves a story that encompasses eight tales told about a family named Webster. Through the centuries and millennia the tales tell you about Man, the Dogs, robots and a new enemy that takes over and threatens them all.
Truly a classic of science-fiction writing that keeps you wanting to find out what happens."

Oh, and there are ants.

Sep. 14 2012 04:19 PM
Frank E. from South Carolina

Happens only in South America?? WRONG!!!! I have witnessed this myself in South Carolina, North Carolina, and East Tennessee. The most recent was last summer 2011 outside Boone, NC. Tens of thousands of fireflies all in synch. Very impressive.

Jun. 25 2012 02:02 PM
JPV

this file doesn't work with my zune media player, and I'd really like it on there. It says it's an invalid media type. every other episode works, so far. Is there anywhere else i can download the original copy or something?

Apr. 30 2012 09:54 PM

truly awesome, leading the charge into "multi-versity" potential of modern media. the appreciation of termites and ants by humans of milleniums are amazing studies.

Jan. 15 2012 09:12 AM

I just listened to Emergence and I am in a wondering state thinking about the ant art. I'd like to lay my eyes on it. Is there somewhere a 'technological late bloomer' might search for these images?

Dec. 27 2011 08:15 PM
renee from dillon, mt

I just got done listening to the the "weighing the ox" part of the show. As a ranch girl out in Montana, I am offended that you would refer to country folk as dumb. In fact I think that due to the fact that country folk sized up and talked as part of their daily life about mundane things such as commodities aka food...meat, produce, etc. The reason the group average guess was so close to the actual weight of ox is because the individual was not dumb but in fact guessing within an area they did in fact know something about.

Dec. 20 2011 06:06 PM
Nessa Speirs from Denver, CO

To previous posters inquiring about fireflies blinking synchronously in the United States: there is only one known location in the United States where fireflies blink in unison. It is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee.

*I only know because I researched this for the writing of a children's story set in these mountains. Not an expert source

Aug. 17 2011 02:44 PM
GAH from MO, USA

This is weird, because in the book Sync by S. Strogatz (2003), he cites a letter from a woman in 1992 about synchronizing fireflies in Kentucky!

http://books.google.com/books?id=mtQvcPbzFfwC&lpg=PP1&dq=sync%20strogatz&pg=PA31#v=snippet&q=Great%20Smoky%20Mountain%20National&f=false

But in this podcast (from 2005?) Dr. Strogatz says there are only synchronizing fireflies in Asia. I guess the interview with Dr. Strogatz was in 1991 or so, and they waited a few years before splicing it together?

Aug. 12 2011 08:40 PM
Kevin

Love the show! Was trying to find some Youtube video on the synchronized fireflies. What I found was interesting, but far from total synchronization. Maybe you all could point us to some video where we could witness thousands of fireflies blinking on and off exactly at the same time. Thanks!

May. 19 2011 10:59 AM
Kat from Brooklyn, NY

"The sum is greater than its parts." The sum is something entirely different - a new perspective. Perhaps our senses combine and sync to form the subjective consciousness perspective which can only be viewed as a whole, by taking a step back from traditional dissections. Synthesis is just as valuable as analysis.

Apr. 14 2011 09:58 PM

New to radiolab, just downloaded all previous broadcasts, so just listened to this. Had to pause and make some coffee after that singing coffee part. Love the show. As far as rebroadcast, if I had not downloaded previous ones, I would not have heard this yet, so I say get over it people.

One complaint, the commerical for tix give away to NYC show was loaded onto the front of EVERY episode where Jad says "hang out with Robert and me in our dressing rooms (evil laugh)" has driven me crazy as I have been listening to back to back episodes while working on a project for 4 days and can't always get to the computer to fast forward.

But I'll survive. Thanks guys!

Apr. 02 2011 08:12 AM

@hawkotaco: that sounds more like clumping (the tendency of random events to happen in clumps, rather than being more evenly distributed) than emergence. There could also be other factors, which might be revealed by plotting arrivals by minutes of the hour. Read the last chapter of Martin Gardner's "Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes To Puzzle And Delight" for more.

Jan. 03 2011 04:58 AM
hawkotaco

I work nights at a grocery store and see "emergence" happen all night long as I stand for extended periods of time with zero customers until suddenly, a whole group all comes to the front at once. I don't understand it, but at least now I can label it. Thanks.

Oct. 11 2010 02:39 PM
KLM

Please leave the 'holy' explanations out of your generally science - based shows
thank you

Sep. 02 2010 11:24 AM
A Tesla

Firefly synchronicity closer to home:
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2010/may/25/firefly-showcase/

May. 25 2010 03:23 PM
Fran

I've exhausted my Radio Lab.. what else do you guys like to listen to?
Much appreciated!

Mar. 05 2009 03:30 AM
Alex

I am a new listener, and so this was the first time I heard this podcast. I really enjoy Radio Lab, and once I have an income I will donate. I do have one question relating to the show: does emergence apply to Wikipedia? One major complaint I hear against Wikipedia is the fact that anyone can contribute at any time to any page. I frequently respond that the pages are monitored by moderators, loyal posters, and (I think) bots. I would think that emergence does show up in the creation and upkeep of pages. I'm not sure if anyone will respond to this post, but I am curious. Please note that I do not work for Wikimedia, or act as a moderator, or even a frequent contributor. I do use Wikipedia to look up many subjects often however.

Dec. 22 2008 05:21 PM
c.m.

Seriously...what happened to Radio Lab? Fewer podcasts. Shorter podcasts. Rerunning old podcasts as new. I know, they are in between "seasons" and all, but the "seasons" only seem to be a couple of episodes. I want my old Radio Lab back! (and by old I mean "old quality," not as in old episodes replayed over and over again.)

Jul. 21 2008 07:45 PM
Don Jennings

I think that the (great) podcast would have been a bit better had it noted that the ants, termites, bees or neurons have to have some kind of internal rules for immediate interactions or the community won't emerge. There are computer simulations of things like this.

Jul. 21 2008 05:07 PM
Andrew S.

I agree with Jake. Why not put "first broadcast on 1/15/06" (or whatever date) prominently in the show description? I don't mind the extra download, it'd just be nice to know without listening to it whether it's a show I've already heard.

Jul. 21 2008 01:42 PM
Jake

I don't mind rebroadcasting, and it's not at all unusual that Radio Lab does it (This American Life, for example, does it all the time). But it would be nice if the file were labeled as a rebroadcast--I spent 5 or 10 mins listening to this one, trying to figure out if it was a rerun or a sequel.

Minor quibble--I still like you, Radio Lab.

Jul. 16 2008 08:18 PM
Jeff

Great podcast Keep it up, its very "educational" and gives me food for thought ;)

Jul. 16 2008 07:28 PM
Marcy

Not everyone grew up with fireflies. Us west-coasters are deprived in this area, and I didn't experience their magic until a summer break when I was nearly 20 years old. Needless to say I was fascinated! I long to make it back to the right geographic region in the right season to see them again.

Jul. 16 2008 06:54 PM
name

well, everybody who follows the show knows this is a re-broadcast. Although I don't particularly agree with re-broadcasting; I say these shows are amazing; it takes time to create a broadcast like this. So I say cut them some slack, geez. It's not like anyone is paying for these shows anyway. If you prepaid for the entire season and they sent you a re-broadcast then maybe you could complain. So I say stop whining and delete the re-broadcast; be grateful it's free!

Jul. 16 2008 04:01 PM
Steven

edq (and others) have a good point. It just doesn't make sense to "rebroadcast" content which can be downloaded at anytime.

Jul. 16 2008 01:14 PM
eqd

seriously - i don't get it. it's like no one can make a comment critical of the behaviour of radio lab without getting modded down.

they have made excellent programs in the past, but it's not heresy, nor an insult, to point out that their present mode isn't living up to what it was in the past.

the show is already published through itunes, and so it is fetch-able at any moment; re-releasing it is through a channel which it is already available is not only muddying, but additionally annoying to people who have their podcast subscription automatically fetch any new episodes.

mod me down as you please, but as someone who gives several hundred dollars a year to WNYC just because i (?used to?) like radio lab, i have as good a right as anyone to be gruff.

Jul. 16 2008 01:06 PM

I would really like to know the artist name for the music about 26 minutes into the podcast. Does anyone know? Thank you.

Jul. 15 2008 10:41 PM

i agree, i can just hit play if i want to hear this again.

Jul. 15 2008 07:06 PM

Eh, maybe this should have been marked as a re-broadcast. I was really hoping this was a continuation of my favorite episode...damn.

Jul. 15 2008 02:13 PM
Karen Stock

This excellent episode is rebroadcast-worthy, to my mind. One of the best hours of radio I've ever heard. It fed right into some thinking I've been doing about change, systems, and spirituality. The firefly segment alone is worth the price of admission.

Jul. 15 2008 01:30 PM

this seems like a re-run? rebroadcasting content is not really relevant with podcast technology. Don't waste my bandwidth.

Jul. 15 2008 01:25 PM

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