Harvard University researchers show how simple, brainless "bristle-bots" (like those you can make yourself or purchase for $6 as a "Hexbug Nano") exhibit swarming behavior when contained in a small area. According to the scientists, when this kind of behavior is seen in the natural world, among termites for example, it's "linked with insect cognition and social interactions. Our study shows how the behavioral repertoire of these physically interacting automatons controlled by one parameter translates into the mechanical intelligence of swarms." "Swarming, swirling and stasis in sequestered bristle-bots" (PDF)
Are you curious about complexity? Do you dig dynamic systems and emergent phenomena? The Santa Fe Institute, one of the birthplaces of chaos theory, is now offering a free "Introduction to Complexity" online course, open to anyone. No science or math background required! The instructor is computer scientist Melanie Mitchell, author of the excellent and entertaining book Complexity: A Guided Tour. The course started last week but it's not too late to join!
In this eleven-week course you'll learn about the tools used by scientists to understand complex systems. The topics you'll learn about include dynamics, chaos, fractals, information theory, self-organization, agent-based modeling, and networks. You’ll also get a sense of how these topics fit together to help explain how complexity arises and evolves in nature, society, and technology. There are no prerequisites. You don't need a science or math background to take this introductory course; it simply requires an interest in the field and the willingness to participate in a hands-on approach to the subject.Introduction to Complexity
If you only have the vaguest notion of what a "smart grid" actually is, don't feel bad. This is one of those energy buzzwords that confuses a lot of people. Part of the problem is that utility companies don't often do a very good job of communicating this stuff. They tell you it's good. They say something hand-wavey about the Internet. And then they pretty much leave you to fend for yourself.
The other part of the problem: "Smart grid" is one word that refers to more than one thing. A smart grid is actually lots of different technologies. They're related. But they do different jobs in different ways, and even one tool might have different levels of functionality that apply to it. That fact is really clear when you visit a smart grid research laboratory, as I did earlier this week at the Colorado State University.
The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory houses a little micro-grid, where electricity can be generated, used, and stored in ways that model the workings of the real-life grid. The smart grid technologies the laboratory is used to study apply to every part of that system—smart grid is part of generation, it's part of how electricity is moved around, it's part of how we consume electricity, and it's part of how we balance supply and demand and avoid blackouts. In other words: This seemingly vague and esoteric concept is actually closely tied to practical, day-to-day realities.
Yesterday, I got to go on NPR's Marketplace Tech Report to talk about two smart grid technologies that you're likely to get some hands-on experience with in the near future.
Today’s electrical grid, [Koerth-Baker] says, is something of a high-wire act. “The grid, in order to function, has to have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand,” says Koerth-Baker. “And, there are people that work in these centers all around the U.S., working 24 hours, seven days a week to make sure that happens, and they have to work on a minute-by-minute basis, so the smart grids are really about helping them maintain that balance.”
Listen to the whole interview at Marketplace Tech Report.
Learn more about smart grids and how our electric system work by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.
Image: Looking down into Colorado State University's smart grid laboratory. Image taken by Dan Bihn.