Emergence Online Interactive Science Museum: Home

Explore an online museum and learn how emergence affects your world, from global warming and Alzheimer’s disease to quantum physics and facts about ants. Play interactive science games, watch modern dance and online videos, create art, read manga, and more.


An emergent universe: from ant colonies and the internet to consciousness and global warming ... emergence is everywhere.

Questions and Answers


You are comprised of 75 trillion cells, of which thousands are dying every second. Within 7 years, none of your current cells will remain. In the face of such loss, how do you remain you?

When new cells are created, chemical signals from neighboring cells tell them what part of your DNA instructions to follow, and, thus, what kind of cell – skin, muscle, neuron, etc .– to become. It is this cellular herd mentality that enables you to stay you.

component parts: your cells
emergent phenomenon: you


Cities, like bee colonies, act as living organisms whose behavior evolves from many individual interactions. Computer simulations of artificial societies have shown that complex social structures – from opinion clusters to hierarchies – automatically emerge from these interactions. For example, if individuals in a simulation prefer similar neighbors, residential segregation will arise, a phenomenon observed in Manchester, England c.1850. This city, which grew explosively with no government, self-organized into a neighborhood structure that hid the factories and working classes from view.

Understanding our cities, from New York to SimCity and Second Life, will require understanding how street-level dynamics affect the whole.

component parts: individuals
emergent phenomenon: city dynamics


The industrial revolution was not mandated; it emerged spontaneously from decisions made by millions of interacting individuals. Unfortunately, there was also an unexpected consequence: global warming. Indeed, scientists agree that the central cause of global warming is human-generated post-industrial carbon-dioxide emissions.

If enough people make different choices, we can help solve global warming. For example, if every US household replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent, the annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be equivalent to removing a million cars from the road. With internet networking, we can help create a revolution of individual actions that will slow global warming.

component parts: individuals
emergent phenomenon: global warming


This beautiful abstract image was not created by an artist. Instead it was generated chemically by exposing a thin layer of an iron complex solution – similar to that used for blueprints and cyanotypes – to UV light. The light promotes a chemical reaction that generates a group of related insoluble compounds known collectively as Prussian Blue. When left to dry, the different forms of Prussian Blue create crystals of different colors. This chemical process generates a different crystal pattern every time.

component parts: molecules
emergent phenomenon: crystal pattern


The synchronized flashing of Malaysian fireflies, which often spans many thousands of fireflies, is an orchestra with no maestro. Instead, each firefly shifts its own flash rate in response to the flash rates it senses around it, creating a feedback mechanism that generates synchronicity.

In 1994, engineers solved an internet traffic problem – the appearance of spontaneous traffic pulses between router computers – by recognizing that the routers were behaving like fireflies, exchanging messages and inadvertently synchronizing.

Today, synchronizing fireflies continue to provide a model for improving distributed network technologies.

component parts: fireflies
emergent phenomenon: synchronicity


Your brain is like an ant colony, with neurons playing the role of ants.

Through simple pheromone signaling between individuals, ants create colonies that exhibit a developmental life cycle, personality, and learning. Colonies can find the shortest route to a food source, prioritize among sources, and respond to external events.

Electrical signaling between neurons similarly enables human development, personality, and learning. And while we don’t yet understand how neurons create consciousness, we do know that both memory and recognition are associated with the synchronized firing of thousands of neurons.

component parts: neurons
emergent phenomenon: consciousness


During its life cycle, a slime mold slug acts like a real-life “transporter,” dispersing itself (via spores) into thousands of independently foraging cells that will recombine into a slug when conditions become harsh. Without Captain Kirk at the helm, how are these cells able to find each other?

When food is scarce, slime mold cells release a pheromone that prompts other cells to release even more pheromone. Mathematical modeling shows that if cells also tend to move towards higher pheromone concentrations, this pheromone signaling will lead to cell aggregation.

This same mathematical model can also explain aspects of tumor growth and arterial hardening.

component parts: slime mold cells
emergent phenomenon: slime mold slug

Emergence Videos

Flocking Birds

Why is flocking behavior emergent?
Because we would not predict flocking from the behavior of a single bird. Rather, flocking – the coordinated group behavior of many birds – results from the way each bird responds to the actions of neighboring birds.

Component parts: birds
Emergent phenomenon: flocking

Schooling Fish

Why is schooling behavior emergent?
Thousands of fish can move in unison, maintaining near-uniform spacing even as the group suddenly changes direction. But unlike a human army on parade, a school of fish has no leader telling them what to do. Instead, their coordinated behavior arises from the way each fish responds to the behavior of its neighbors.

Component parts: fish
Emergent phenomenon: schooling


Why is traffic congestion emergent?
Have you ever been stuck in a freeway traffic jam that had no discernable cause? Or noticed that even under free-flowing traffic conditions, cars tend to collect in clusters? Computer modeling has shown that many traffic congestion patterns have no external cause, but instead arise from the way individual drivers respond to the behaviors of the drivers around them.

Component parts: cars
Emergent phenomenon: traffic patterns


Why is crystallization emergent?
Under certain conditions, the many molecules in a liquid will spontaneously organize their positions into a regular lattice, causing the liquid to crystallize. This self-organization changes the properties of the whole system – from those of a liquid (wetness) to those of a solid (hardness) – while the underlying parts remain unchanged.

Component parts: molecules
Emergent phenomenon: crystallization


General References

S. B. Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (Scribner, NY, 2001).

S. H. Strogatz, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (Theia, NY, 2003).

M. Resnick, Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997).

Nova Science Now on emergence: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3410/03.html

Santa Fe Alliance for Science’s Science Café on-line video presentations; many of these are about emergence and complex systems: http://www.sfafs.org/science_cafes.asp

WNYC Radiolab episode about emergence: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2005/02/18

Overview of complexity research at U. Chicago in 2002; contains a non-technical introduction and intriguing examples from a broad range of fields: http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0212/features/index.html

ICAM-I2CAM’s website; navigate to the outreach pages: http://www.icam-i2cam.org/

More Technical

R.B. Laughlin, D. Pines, The Theory of Everything, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 97, 28-31 (2000); http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/97/1/28.pdf

Emergent phenomena and materials: D.L. Cox, D. Pines, Complex Adaptive Matter: Emergent Phenomena in Materials, Mater. Res. Soc. Bull. 30, 425-432 (June 2005); http://www.mrs.org/s_mrs/sec_subscribe.asp?CID=1825&DID=75780

Emergent phenomena in sociology: R. K. Sawyer, Social Emergence (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005).

An overview of emergence and the science of complexity across various disciplines: Science (Complex Systems Special Issue) 284 (5411), 1-212 (2 April 1999). http://www.sciencemag.org/content/vol284/issue5411/

Santa Fe Institute website; includes overviews of various areas of research involving complex systems: http://www.santafe.edu/research/topics.php

Search Terms

emergence, emergent phenomena, complex systems, science of complexity, complex adaptive systems

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