“The Rules of Attraction”

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The Story

“The Rules of Attraction”
by Alexandra Witze
The Economist, September 16, 2010

The Pitch

Dear Mr. Carr:

I’d like to pitch a news story about the expected imminent plague of locusts in Australia, and how researchers in Sydney are working to predict locust behavior in order to stave off some of the devastation these insect swarms bring. It turns out that there’s a lot of research into how solitary locusts decide to gang up, transforming themselves into biblical-like masses and causing millions of dollars in damages.

In the last few years an unusual collaboration among biologists and mathematicians has begun to tackle questions about whether collective locust behavior is predictable or not. A paper to appear next month in Physical Review E has some bad news – mathematical insights suggest that there’s no way to understand how insect swarms suddenly decide to change direction (see my article here http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/61401/title/Swarming_locusts_impossible_to_pr edict)

But there’s far more to the story. Researchers led by Steve Simpson at the University of Sydney are embarking on field experiments to see if they can at least figure out better ways to spray to control locusts. Roboticians have developed a computer-controlled UAV to track locust swarms from the air. Over the next few months they’ll be gluing tiny reflectors onto the backs of individual locusts and using a powerful strobe on the UAV to illuminate their movement within the mass. The hope is to better identify the dynamics within a swarm and, hopefully, use that knowledge to better control spray patterns.

The timing couldn’t be better. Australia is expecting a plague across the southern part of the country this spring:
http://www.news.com.au/features/environment/locust-threat-set-to-consume-australia- experts-warn/story-e6frflp0-1225891907754
http://www.daff.gov.au/animal-plant-health/locusts/current http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/15/2954106.htm
Please let me know if you’d be interested in a story on this. I’m a freelance science journalist based in Boulder, Colorado, and contributing editor to Science News magazine. Until this spring I was the news editor at Nature, where I worked for several years under Oliver Morton. Recent clips of mine are at bit.ly/sciencenewswitze.


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