Mumuration, Synchronization and Symmetry

The other day I listened to a bit of David Dye interviewing Bell X1 on their newest release, Chop, Chop. David Dye asked the band about the inspiration for the first track on the album, Starlings Over Brighton Pier. Songwriter Paul Noonan said that seeing a mumuration of starlings inspired him to create a song that would sound like the birds’ movements. Bell X1 captured the sense of murmuration beautifully in their song. I’d never heard the word murmuration and I was charmed both by the gorgeous word and the fact that it was given to the seemingly inexplicable air dance of starlings.

Noonan mentioned in his interview the need for the human mind to attribute meaning to a coordinated event. This made me consider how I am moved by birds flying in concert, individuals assembling as a flashmob, orchestras playing complicated pieces, or voices raised in Om. I know I am not alone and I wondered why we seek synchronicity. 

Mathematician Steven Strogatz in a 2004 TED talk states that sync may be the “most pervasive drive in all of nature.” In this article for Wired, Brandon Keim, informs us that computational modeling of the starlings reveals that the source of their coordinated movement is attributable more to physics than biology. As one bird moves, so they all move. No one knows how exactly they maintain this near instantaneous response. Keim suggests that the answer “hints at universal principles yet to be understood.”

Now I’m going to add a profound spin to this entire concept. On Radiolab‘s recent podcast entitled “Desperately Seeking Symmetry,” they opened with a 2400 year old story from Plato via Aristophanes about why so many of us seeks our “other half.” In their final piece, “Nothing’s the Antimatter,” Neil de Grasse Tyson and Marcelo Gleiser explain the relationship of anti-matter to matter in order to complete the search for symmetry.

Now bear with me because I am far from a physics expert. One of the reasons I love Radiolab is because it allows mind-blowing concepts to become accessible. Okay, so Marcelo Gleiser explained that when an electron and a positron meet, they will annihilate resulting in mostly nothing — except for radiation. If half the universe is matter and the other half the universe is anti-matter and we all bump into each other, we would not be here.

But we are here. So…why?

Marcelo Gleiser explained “…an imperfection in the laws of physics that we know of now, which explains this bias. To every billion particles of antimatter, we had a billion and one particles of matter. That tiny excess of one in a billion is enough to create everything that exists now.”

In other words, we owe our very existence to asymmetry. Maybe Plato was onto something. Maybe we are moved by mumuration — and all of the other examples of sync — because at our fundamental core we are seeking a sense of unity in whatever form that may take.

9 responses to “Mumuration, Synchronization and Symmetry

  1. I need to sit with this a bit. I deeply love the concept of synchronicity, which is why I love the synchronized swimming event at the Olympics. I love watching the birds glide across the sky together. So I loved that video. Love the word “murmuration.” It’s like “susurrus.”

    I’m reminded of how we’re meant to live in community. Our own hurts and egos often get in the way of that. Writing is such a solitary event that we sometimes forget that we still need each other.


    • Linda, you read my mind! I also thought of the word “susurrus,” which I will never have the nerve to use in my writing, but which I love. And thank you for connecting my disparate thoughts back to writing! Writers do need one another. Maybe the act of writing itself is a search for symmetry or for a way to be in sync with the world.


  2. This is fascinating, Laura. I love the word murmuration. It makes me think of a beating heart. Thanks for a great post!


  3. I love this, Laura. You had me at physics. 😉 I’ve always thought this is why as a species we need story. There’s that connective tissue between author and reader (producer and viewer, playwright and audience) that tells us we are in sync with someone. We are not alone. Symmetry is a strong pull.


    • Nicole! I knew there was a reason I wrote this post. It was so that you all could connect dots for me! As a person who loves to connect with others and who loves to read, it’s not that surprising that I would eventually try to connect with others through writing!


  4. Add me to the fans of the word murmuration–a new one for me too. I also love universal principles yet to be understood–such a great encapsulation of synchronicity. Universal, fundamental, but not fully comprehensible–except for the connection you and Nicole pointed out.


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