A granular material, such as sand, coffee beans, or balls in ball pit, is a collection of particles that interact with each other and dissipate energy. These materials can act like solids, flow like liquids, or suddenly transition between the two phases – for example, in a landslide, the soil stops holding its shape and flows. The Granular and Particulate Networks Workshop, PARNET19, brought together the physicists, engineers, and mathematicians who study these materials in a series of lectures and discussions.
Many living creatures, such as birds, sheep, and fish, make coherent flocks or swarms. Flocking animals travel together, coordinating their speed and turns in an often visually striking manner. This can have benefits for the animals – flocking birds can use aerodynamics to fly more efficiently, sheep can move together as a group to evade predators, and fish can use collective sensing to find preferred locations in their environment. Flocks emerge in biological systems because animals try to follow their neighbors.
But how about non-living things? Can they spontaneously form swarms without any biological motive?
As their name suggests, so-called “granular materials” are made up of “grains” -- small (but macroscopic) pieces of sand, glass beads, coffee grounds, or almost any other solid you can think of. Granular materials can flow like a liquid (like sand in an hourglass), resist deformation like a solid (like the sand under your feet at the beach), or quickly transition between these states (like pebbles in a rockslide).