Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How molecules are a lot like birds

Emory chemist Jay Goodwin was featured in an interview by Ari Daniel of PRI's "Living on Earth." Below is an excerpt from the interview transcript:

ARI DANIEL: Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you catch a glimpse of something that gives away a secret of the universe. It’s like a window – up into the heavens and deep into ourselves. This is a story about someone who poked his head through just this kind of window, and we find him in Atlanta. It’s a perfect day here – Jay Goodwin walks over to a bench to sit down. And he can’t help but be reminded about a day just like this one, 5 years ago, in western Michigan where he used to live.

JAY GOODWIN: I was outside – I think I was going for a walk, just to kind of clear my head a little bit. I turned a corner, and I saw this flock of birds and they took off into the sky and they started to form a shape – sort of an amorphous shape. And it was one that was dynamic, and it was changing – but it had a boundary to it, like looking at a blob of oil in water.

DANIEL: It stopped Goodwin in his tracks. Several hundred birds pulsing and dipping and soaring to an invisible beat in the sky.

GOODWIN: It wasn’t clear what they were responding to – there weren’t any predator birds in the sky. And you never got the sense that there was anything that was directing it from within. There was no leader bird that they were all following. But just watching it was, well, it was beautiful.

DANIEL: Goodwin realized he had no way of predicting the flock’s behavior by simply taking lots of individual birds flapping their wings, and adding them up. Rather, it was something that emerged once all these birds threw themselves together. And it’s this notion of emergence – how really complex patterns and properties can arise from combining somewhat simple units – that now defines how Goodwin thinks about his real work. Chemistry.

Goodwin heads into his lab at Emory University. He’s a chemist here. And since seeing that flock, he’s come to appreciate how molecules are a lot like birds. That is – you get to know how the individuals behave and parade on their own, but then, you put them together. And often, something new and astonishing emerges.

You can read the whole transcript, and listen to the podcast, on the "Living on Earth" web site.

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