In 2021, Professor Giorgio Parisi from Sapienza University of Rome shared the Nobel Prize for physics with two climate scientists for “groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems”. The Nobel Prize organisation chose an article with my images in Nautilus magazine to illustrate the award.
As a physics graduate myself, this was a cause for great excitement, particularly as my PhD was in the field of complexity. But what do starling murmurations have to do with the Nobel prize and what made my photography so relevant?
A complex system is one consisting of many different interacting parts and can be difficult to describe mathematically. The earth's climate and starling murmurations are both examples of such systems. The field of complexity science has emerged over the last 50 years to address these trans-disciplinary problems which bring together scientists from diverse backgrounds.
Professor Parisi's curiosity has taken him from quantum field theory to studying flocks of birds. He sees the similarities across fields saying that most of his research has dealt with studying how simple behaviours give rise to global collective behaviour.
Parisi and his team studied flocks of starlings above the rooftops of Rome, tracking the 3D position of thousands of birds. They were able to deduce many of the local interaction rules that lead to the fascinating shapes that we see when they murmurate and reveal the adaptations that the starlings have evolved to make flocks a place of safety for the birds.
His first popular science book, In a Flight of Starlings: The Wonder of Complex Systems, charts some of the highlights of his life’s work and makes a case for the value of science and is due to be published in July 2023.
The climate scientists, Klaus Hasselmann and Syukuro Manabe, used a complex systems thinking approach to prove that climate change is a result of humans adding carbon into the atmosphere.
The Covid 19 pandemic has made us realise how connected our world is. We humans are part of integrated systems, from social networks to supply chains to the very air we breathe.
We are going to need to design our communities, logistics systems and economies with this in mind. And yet, we have, all around us, systems of incredible complexity that are immensely robust. Designed by nature, for us to learn from.
By experimenting with vintage techniques, I try to visualise nature’s complex systems; to reveal patterns and behaviours otherwise hidden to the naked eye. From the intricate wingbeats of flight to the fluid-like textures of the entire flock moving as one; Art meets complexity.