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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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To shoot this week’s TIME cover story about animal friendships — which you can read here — photographer Catherine Ledner called on years of experience of hanging out with cute critters, including her work on two books of animal photography, Animal House and Glamour Dogs. But this shoot offered something new, even for the animal pro. Most of Ledner’s work involves pictures of singular animals, while TIME’s portfolio features animal pairs. “I had to make sure that the dogs that were coming were actually friends,” she says.

With that criterion in place, Ledner found that shooting pairs of animals was no more difficult than shooting them one at a time. Like human models, the animals brought their own personalities to the set and Ledner was able to capture the interplay of those forces. Also like human models, the animals brought entourages (a.k.a. trainers) who kept the stars focused on the task at hand—and who conveniently stepped aside when Ledner wanted to let her subjects off the leash, so to speak.

But unlike human models, the animal managed to make the group shots look effortless. “If you’re shooting a group of people, you have an agenda of who you want looking in the lens and who you don’t,” Ledner says. “To get everyone to look good at one time is harder than it is, I think, when you have a bunch of animals.”

Which is not to say that the photographer’s sessions with her animal models were all fun and games. Ledner—who owns three dogs, two cats and four rabbits, but does not frequently photograph her own pets—says that animal photography requires putting cuddliness aside. While people may get relaxed and happy with background music and a festive mood, quiet is important to help a dog (or a bird or a rabbit, as the case may be) maintain his concentration. Luckily, almost all of the animals that participated in TIME’s cover shoot were seasoned professionals. One dog named Billy had sat for Ledner twice in the past. The only non-professional at the session was the rabbit, who was, in fact, a real friend of Billy’s. “The rabbit was so docile. It would let the dog put its head smack dab on top of it. There was just total trust between these animals,” says Ledner. And the photographer was hardly upset about shooting an amateur model: “The bunny’s only six weeks old—and how can you be a pro bunny?”

Catherine Ledner is an American photographer based in California and author of two books: Animal House and Glamour Dogs. See more here.

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No one knows why they do it. Yet each fall, thousands of starlings dance in the twilight above Gretna, Scotland. The birds gather in magical shape-shifting flocks called murmurations, having migrated in the millions from Russia and Scandinavia to escape winter’s bite. Scientists aren’t sure how they do it, either. Even complex algorithmic models haven’t yet explained the starlings’ acrobatics, which rely on the tiny bird’s quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds to avoid aerial collisions—and predators—in the giant flock. Despite their show of force in the dusky sky, starlings have declined significantly in the UK in recent years, perhaps because of a drop in nesting sites. The birds still roost in several of Britain’s rural pastures, however, settling down to sleep (and chatter) after the evening’s ballet.

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @svangildercooke.

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Little Boy Little Bird
Copyright © 2010

Dreaming is free, and after all, Icarus was just born in the wrong time.

Hammock is an experimental music band from Nashville, Tennessee, comprised of Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson.

Breathturn is a single taken from their latest, self released, album, entitled Chasing After Shadows… Living with the Ghosts Ghosts.

The music video has been directed by David Altobelli and produced at Symphony 19 and Conker All.

Director of Photography: Larkin Seiple. Visual Effects: Hank Friedmann. Production Design: Ethan Feldbau.

Sognare non costa nulla, e dopo tutto Icaro era solo nato nel periodo sbagliato.

Hammock è un gruppo sperimentale di Nashville nel Tennessee, formato da Marc Byrd e Andrew Thompson.

Breathturn è un singolo tratto dal loro ultimo album, rilasciato in proprio ed intitolato Chasing After Shadows… Living with the Ghosts Ghosts.

Il video musicale è stato diretto da David Altobelli e prodotto presso Symphony 19 e Conker All.

Direttore della fotografia: Larkin Seiple. Effetti visivi di Hank Friedmann. Scenografie di Ethan Feldbau.

Hammock Chasing Shadows

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LINK: Visita David Altobelli.

LINK: Visita Symphony 19.

LINK: Visita Conker All.

LINK: Visita Ross Girard.

LINK: Visita Larkin Seiple.

LINK: Visita Ethan Feldbau.

LINK: Visita Hank Friedmann.

LINK: Visita Katie Machaiek.

LINK: Visita Hammock.

LINK: Visita Chasing After Shadows…Living with the Ghosts.

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Convince me I’m not bored

Run From Wolves
Copyright © 2010

The trouble with bubbles is when you’re stuck inside with the wolves…

Christopher Smith is a Canadian singer and songwriter from Vancouver.

Gently Gently is a song on his debut album, entitled The Beckon Call and released for Boompa Records on May 2010.

The music video has been directed by Salazar. Director of Photography: Todd Duym. Art Department: Hitoshi Okamoto and Robin Hunt.

Il problema del mondo nella bolla è quando ti ci trovi bloccato coi lupi…

Christopher Smith è un cantautore canadese, precisamente di Vancouver.

Gently Gently è un brano dall’album di esordio, intitolato The Beckon Call ed uscito per Boompa Records nel maggio 2010.

Il video musicale è stato diretto da Salazar. Direttore della fotografia: Todd Duym. Design e scenografie: Hitoshi Okamoto, Robin Hunt.

Beckon Call

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LINK: Visita Salazar.

LINK: Visita Todd Duym.

LINK: Visita Hitoshi Okamoto.

LINK: Visita Christopher Smith.

LINK: Visita The Beckon Call.

LINK: Visita Boompa Records.

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