Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ig Nobel Prize goes to research on self-organizing slime mold

The behavior of slime mold, a fungus-like organism, has been one of the most famous models of selforganization. Slime mold begin life as amoeba-like cells, each wandering around in random walk behavior. But under certain environmental conditions they suddenly change their behavior and aggregate to a single multi-cellular body; with the help of chemical signals they self-organize into a network of protoplasmic strands. This emergent behavior can solve complex tasks like creating shortest interconnections between food sources in a maze.
Fuligo septica slime mold
(not dog vomit ;-)
from license
A research team in Japan discovered that if they placed food piles (oat flakes) around a central slime mold in the same layout as 36 outlying cities around Tokyo, the mold created a network connecting the food sources that looked similar to the existing rail system. By introducing also topographical barriers, the results were even more similar.
Out of this team, Mark Fricker and Dan Bebber recently received the Ig Nobel award in transportation. The Ig Nobel Prizes are given annually for ten achievements that "first make people laugh, and then make them think.". But they are also a show that makes people's interested in science, so the Ig Nobel award might be considered more than just a Nobel Prize parody. However, the slime mold result being awarded there shows that many people still perceive complex systems result as something strange, funny, or improbable. Still, it is great to see research on self-organizing systems awarded!