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Large collections of animals, such as flocks of birds or schools of fish, are difficult to model mathematically. A large flock of starlings, for example, may contain thousands of individuals covering a volume nearly 100 meters across, yet the entire group is able to fly as a unit, changing direction dynamically in response to its environment. In this sense, flocking may be similar to physical systems where order arises spontaneously.

A new study by William Bialek et al. models the flocking patterns of European starlings on ferromagnets (commonly known as permanent magnets), where individual electron spins within a solid spontaneously align, giving rise to an overall magnetic field. By making a minimum number of assumptions about how the birds behave, the authors focus on determining whether the flock's patterns of flight can arise from simple local interactions between pairs of birds. The researchers found they could model flocking behavior with a small number of theoretical parameters, and determined that the amount of interaction was independent of density of the group: the physical distance between two birds is less important than the fact that they have neighbors. 

Even though the model contains no long-range communication across the flock, it allows the entire group to change direction spontaneously.

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