PerspectiveCrowd Dynamics

Flowing crowds

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Science  04 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6422, pp. 27-28
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav9869

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Collective behavior of social animals, particularly coordinated group movements, is one of the most striking phenomena in the natural world, as anyone who has been enthralled by flocks of starlings or schools of sardines can attest. Research in this broad, interdisciplinary field has recently exploded, with motivations ranging from understanding the biological basis of social behavior (1) to developing algorithms for designing and controlling swarms of robots (2). There is good reason to think that the behavior of human crowds is quite similar to these animal groups and that studying humans might help elucidate the origins of crowd panic and other dangerous instabilities that can lead to injury or loss of life (3). All these goals require modeling, both as a check on our understanding and as a predictive tool for analyzing new situations. On p. 46 of this issue, Bain and Bartolo (4) describe a powerful new way to model human crowds. Instead of focusing on individuals, they build a continuum “hydrodynamic” model of the crowd as a whole and then constrain it with observational data collected from marathon runners. This approach circumvents many of the sometimes-questionable assumptions that have previously been made and provides a roadmap for constructing an empirically grounded theory of collective behavior.