This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Termites eat millions at a bank in India" !!!

Giant Northern Termite
photo from CSIRO, Australia
not copyrighted

It may not be geological fluid dynamics, but at least the headline is fun (and it is related to fluid mechanics, see below!) The Christian Science Monitor reported today that an "army of termites munched through 10 milion rupees ($222,000) in currency notes stored in a steel chest at a bank" in northern India. The "police have registered a case of negligence against bank officials," a procedure for opening an investigation.

So, what is a termite? Not being a biologist, I had to look this one up. Ah, they are closely related to wood-eating cockroaches, an insect that we know all too well in our ancient geology building! The oldest termite fossils date to the early Cretaceous; the Cretaceous extends from 145.5-65.5 million years ago, ending with the giant K/T impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. It is likely that they extend farther back in geologic time by perhaps another 100 million years.

Termites, like ants, some bees, and wasps divid labor among castes (workers, soldiers and reproductive individuals) and are guided by swarm intelligence to  exploit food sources. Swarm intelligence (SI) is a property of decentralized, self-organized systems, and is a concept employed in work on artificial intelligence. In a swarm, simple "agents" interact locally with one another according to very simple rules.  The interactions between such agents leads to the emergence of intelligent behavior at a scale much larger than that of the individual agents. Prominent biological examples are ant colonies, bird flocks, bacterial growth and fish schools. Concepts have also been used in some models of river system formation to optimize the routes of water as it runs from mountains to the oceans. Topography is represented by a grid, and a set of rules is established that directs any water at a point on the grid to a lower place. The process is repeated until the water reaches the ocean, at which point a river network has been established at a scale much larger than any of the interacting grid cells. Voila--fluid mechanics!

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