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ARGONNE, Illinois — In the basement of a nondescript building here at Argonne National Laboratory, nickel particles in a beaker are building themselves into magnetic snakes that may one day give clues about how life originally organized itself.
These chains of metal particles look so much like real, living animals, it is hard not to think of them as alive. (See exclusive video below.) But they are actually bits of metal that came together under the influence of a specially tuned magnetic field.
Looking at how their particles self-organize, the scientists see echoes of herds of sheep and schools of fish. It seems that there might be some common rules that underpin the behavior and movement of groups of things, but it's not clear what those rules are. It took a couple of years of exhaustive research to figure out how the systems emerge, some of which will be published next week in Physical Review Letters.
Perhaps, by studying this simple system, they can understand what Aronson calls "the fundamentals of self assembly, how nature can organize itself into ordered states." The idea is that if they can determine how magnetic fields and water tension can excite these particles into complex emergent behavior, they will get closer to understanding more complicated, messier systems — like the primordial soup from which life arose on Earth.