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Social atoms

By Mark Buchanan   September 2007

On the desolate tundra of the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, stones lie in hauntingly beautiful, nearly perfect circular piles. Apparently the work of some intelligent, organizing force, the circles actually arise through a completely natural process: repeated freezing and thawing first pushes the stones into elongated piles, and then curves those piles around into rings. The creator is feedback: a little pattern, even if it arises by accident, sets up forces that lead to more.

Human intuition is ill-prepared to understand such spontaneous order, which seems to emerge from nowhere. Suppose you pour thousands of tiny metal or plastic beads…

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