As every picnicker knows, if you spill strawberry jam in the grass, it will be swarming with ants in no time at all. The ants arrive quickly because they always find the shortest route from their nests to the spill — but how? That question is one that fascinates cutting-edge engineers, computer programmers, and other scientists, who study nature in order to design better and more efficient technology — a quest compellingly described in Peter Bentley’s new book, Digital Biology.
Take the example of the ants: Everywhere an ant goes, it leaves a trail of pheromones, a chemical substance easily detected by other ants. Ants travel in many directions upon leaving their nest, so the resulting network of pheromone trails may seem like a recipe for olfactory chaos. But it’s actually an extremely clever way to find the shortest path between two points.
Imagine 100 ants making their ways haphazardly toward that dollop of strawberry jam. One takes the quickest route, another loops around a puddle before reaching the spill, another leaves from the w... Read more