Right now, as I’m recording this, there’s an astonishing spectacle unfolding in the forests of Tennessee. Every June, vast swarms of Photinus carolinus fireflies light up the night there. The members of this particular species don’t just blink erratically and independently. They sync up; they flash in a dazzling unison, creating waves of light that seem to propagate through the forest. But how do they do it? How do these tiny creatures pull off such a brilliant display?
My guest today is Dr. Orit Peleg. She’s an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and the BioFrontiers Institute, at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Though a physicist by training, Orit and her lab focus on the dynamics of living systems, and they have recently taken up the puzzle of firefly synchrony.
Here, we talk about what it’s like to do fieldwork on fireflies. We discuss the colorful history of research in this area and how the phenomenon of firefly synchrony was originally contested and explained away. We talk about what Orit and her team have learned about the mechanisms of this synchrony—and about their methods, which include rich in-the-wild recordings, experiments involving tents and LEDs, and a fair bit of modeling and math. We also touch on the firing of neurons, the pulsing of heart cells, the clapping of hands, and other examples of synchronization in the natural world.
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Alright, friends, on to my chat with Dr. Orit Peleg. Enjoy!