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The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life Hardcover – December 8, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (December 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046501884X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465018840
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #990,392 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Boston Globe
“Fisher makes intriguing connections” and “demonstrates that statistics don’t always lie, and sometimes even tell important truths.”

Psychology Today
“Fisher jumps with proficiency from locusts to pedestrians to computer algorithms to stock markets.” 

BBC Focus Magazine
“This would be my nominee for book of the year, if it wasn’t still only January. Who knows what may turn up in the next 12 months? Whatever it is, though, will find Fisher a hard act to follow.”

Scott M. Cooper, MIT research affiliate; co-author of Coolhunting 
“It’s a rare pleasure to read a book that builds on great ideas that have come before, pushes concepts forward, and challenges the intellect—while at the same time being eminently accessible. This is just such a book.”

David Sumpter, professor of mathematics, Uppsala University
“Len Fisher reveals how the study of animal swarms allows us to better understand our own society. By blending personal stories with a clear presentation of new theoretical ideas he shows why rumors, ideas and information spread so rapidly through groups.”

Gregory Sword, associate professor of biology, University of Sydney
“That complexity can be simple to explain might seem counterintuitive, but in The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life, Len Fisher demonstrates just that. This book provides a thoughtful, entertaining, and—most important—easy to understand treatment of how patterns emerge and problems can be solved when many individuals interact in very simple ways. Clear and fluent, The Perfect Swarm is an enjoyable source of insight for those who would like to better understand how many seemingly complex things in the world really aren’t so complex after all.”

Peter A. Gloor, author of Swarm Creativity and Coolhunting
The Perfect Swarm does a marvelous job of explaining the network effects that determine our daily life. I highly recommend it to anybody seeking practical solutions to the puzzling complexities of everyday life, and especially to anyone interested in the mathematical and physical underpinnings of swarm intelligence, swarm business, and swarm creativity.”

Ian Stewart, Author of Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities
“From locusts watching Star Wars to Murphy’s Law of Management, The Perfect Swarm hits all the buttons. This is a wonderful tour through the new mathematics of swarms, flocks, and crowds, and it makes the emerging science of complex systems seem simple. Easy to read and highly informative.”

Lord Robert M. May, Zoology Department, Oxford University
“I am not sure there is a ‘science of complexity,’ but there undoubtedly are a lot of interesting ideas emerging about underlying simplicities, and their implications, within many seemingly complicated systems. Len Fisher’s book is a truly excellent and clearly-written guide to this exciting area.”

“By focussing wholly on the science of complexity without using narrative ploys to disguise it, Fisher covers a vast subject quickly in a compact book. The Perfect Swarm is a valuable contribution.”

About the Author

Len Fisher, PhD, is author of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Weighing the Soul, and How to Dunk a Doughnut, which was named Best Popular Science Book by the American Institute of Physics. He has been featured in Newsweek, the Washington Post, and Scientific American. He lives in Wiltshire, England, and Blackheath, Australia.

More About the Author

Australian-born (1942), my main achievements after a life in science have been the award of an IgNobel Prize for using physics to work out the best way to dunk a biscuit, the creation of a carrot clarinet for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, and the invention of a champagne jelly that keeps its fizz (the more serious stuff about me and my activities is on my webite at My books are intended to reveal what really goes on in science, and to share the science that I love, by showing how scientists think about the important and not-so-important problems of life. I now divide my time between England's West Country and the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, following the theory that an endless summer provides the best conditions for writing. The picture was taken in the mountains of Ecuador, the jumping off point for a lifelong ambition to visit the Galapagos Islands.

Customer Reviews

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I have greatly enjoyed reading this book.
Amazon Customer
In chapter one he uses a box for some more difficult material so that some readers may skip the box (an approach Sharon Blakeslee uses so effectively).
He also does a great job explaining how these concepts are relevant to individuals and society.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Robert Carlberg on March 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In many ways this book is a continuation of How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Whereas Lehrer explores the edge between actually thinking about our choices versus going with your gut, Len Fisher's The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life explores some of the surprising mathematics of decision-making. If you have 100 candidates for a job, you should interview the first 37 without hiring anybody, then hire the next one that looks better than the first 37. If you're shopping for bargains, you should look at 14 items then buy the next one that seems like a good deal. Asking a group of people to answer a question is almost 30% more likely to return the right answer than asking an expert - regardless of how knowledgable the group is.

These examples, and many more, are explained and discussed. Why would jury trials be more fair if the jurors didn't deliberate but simply voted? How can asymmetrical columns prevent crushing deaths in panicked crowds? How can passing a traffic jam actually make it worse?

Locusts swarm, ants swarm, bees swarm but they do it with very different rules. It's important to know whether to behave like an ant, a locust or a bee when deciding where to go or how to get there, or why. You can know when to trust your instincts and when to consult an expert -- or a random group of strangers. "Collective wisdom" such as the voters in a democracy are more likely to do the right thing than any -- repeat ANY -- single politician. Kind of restores your faith in the system, doesn't it?
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Rolf Dobelli HALL OF FAME on February 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
As its title suggests, this lively book often makes its points with humor and wit. Physicist and author Len Fisher draws on laboratory experiments, observations of the natural world, well-known historical events, contemporary cases and examples from his own life, making a complex subject accessible. His book covers some ground that will be familiar from other books on group intelligence, collaboration and the wisdom of crowds, but the material on "swarm intelligence" is new. Fisher's numerous examples from all facets of nature provide highly fascinating case studies of group behavior. getAbstract recommends this book to professionals in marketing and strategy, and to trainers and readers who are interested in new ways of thinking.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Steven Unwin on September 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The Perfect Swarm is one of a crop of books that explore the emerging scientific thinking of complexity and order. The subtitle `The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life' and the somewhat playful book title hint that this is one of the more populist books on the subject.

Fisher covers a broad spectrum of subjects and around 30% of the book is devoted to an extensive list of notes which provide further avenues to explore for further information.

Our natural instinct may be to believe that order is the product of control, after all it tends to be the way in which we engineer it. Seeing a flock of birds or shoal of fish, we might imagine that their synchronised behaviour results from a leader issuing commands to be observed by the followers.

Fisher begins by describing how the seemingly complex behaviours we observe can be simulated by systems with remarkably simple rules followed by all participants, with no leadership role existing. For example shoals of fish can be simulated using only three criteria, avoidance, alignment and attraction.

Fisher describes similar criteria to explain the behaviour of swarming bees, locusts and ants. In each case complex patterns emerge from simple rules with no need for the leadership structures we might expect to see.

Particle swarm optimisation is a technique that combines the attributes found in nature and forms the basis for novel decision making techniques with surprisingly good performance.

Fisher then examines how democracy has, perhaps through a process of unwitting evolution, adopted many of the techniques that we are now observing in nature.
Though not as robust in its arguments as some of the books on the subject, it's an entertaining read and contains a number of valuable insights. The comprehensive notes and references make this an easy read that might provide pointers to a more rigourous exploration if the ideas take hold.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Fort Hugo on February 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The Perfect Swarm is a thought provoking book that does a very good job in transmitting the state of the art and the beauty of the science of Complexity, more a collection of ways of thinking -that have developed from different fields emphasizing concepts like holism, emergence, innovation, adaptation, and self-organization- than a well established theory.

The book displays a plethora of interesting and sometimes bold ideas on complexity, illustrated by well selected examples taken from everyday life and covering a wide range of fields. Written in a pop science style that makes complex ideas accessible to the lay person, it touches crucial issues either avoiding technical terms or explaining them in a simple (but not simplistic) way. The main topic is a fundamental one in science in general, namely the emergence of complexity in nature out of simple laws. Fisher explores this problem in the case of animal groups, from insects to humans, in order to better understand how their collective complex behavior arise from simple rules of social interaction between individuals.

A central concept is swarm intelligence : "Swarm behavior becomes swarm intelligence when a group can use it to solve a problem collectively, in a way that the individuals in the group cannot." Swarm intelligence is a paradigmatic example of self-organization of complex systems that requires no leader or central planning. The author argues that self-organization needs the complementary roles of positive and negative feedbacks: the former produce "chain reactions" and work as amplifying factors, while the latter act as regulatory mechanisms. This mathematics of bum and bust is well exemplified by the popular logistic equation from population ecology.
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