A reflection on the lost art of lying down by Bernd Brunner. What do you do to put yourself in a reflective, unhurried state of mind?
The Queen Does Not Rule: The ant colony has often served as a metaphor for human order and hierarchy. But real ant society is radical to its core.
We know now that ants do not perform as specialised factory workers. Instead ants switch tasks. An ant’s role changes as it grows older and as changing conditions shift the colony’s needs. An ant that feeds the larvae one week might go out to get food the next. Yet in an ant colony, no one is in charge or tells another what to do. So what determines which ant does which task, and when ants switch roles?
The colony is not a monarchy. The queen merely lays the eggs. Like many natural systems without central control, ant societies are in fact organised not by division of labour but by a distributed process, in which an ant’s social role is a response to interactions with other ants. In brief encounters, ants use their antennae to smell one another, or to detect a chemical that another ant has recently deposited. Taken in the aggregate, these simple interactions between ants allow colonies to adjust the numbers performing each task and to respond to the changing world. This social coordination occurs without any individual ant making any assessment of what needs to be done.
One of nature’s most physiologically fascinating creatures, mantis shrimp are not only the fastest attackers in the animal kingdom, but they also possess what might be the world’s most interesting and impressive set of eyes. Each mantis shrimp eye has three ‘pupils’, with receptors for 12 distinct colours – yet another world record. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of mantis shrimp eyes are their ability to detect polarised light – largely invisible to humans – which they use to signal to other mantis shrimp that a burrow is occupied from afar, preventing close-quarters showdowns to the death. Taking the mantis shrimp’s lead, scientists are hoping to use a camera that detects light polarisation to catch certain kinds of cancer early.