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The Pure, Random Energy of Humans in Mosh Pits

When humans behave like excited particles.

Ah, that incomparable moment in a giant mosh pit when control is totally lost, when it's just a beautiful mess of pushing and shoving and sweat and negative personal space. Beautiful, you wonder? Yes, yes it is. There probably isn't a better example of collective human motion among strangers on Earth. It's humans as current--an individual gets swept in, swirled and bounced around, and then spit out. It's violent, but unified. And being subsumed into it (and music) is one of the best things there is.


And mosh pits, as a one of more bizarre interactions taking place among humans, are also of interest to scientists.

Turns out that mosh pits behave a lot like gases do, with the people within them making up pretty good flesh analogs for particles. This revelation comes courtesy of Cornell researcher Jesse Silverberg, who happened to notice at one particular metal show that, well, mosh pits are actually pretty weird. "I'm usually in the mosh pit, but for the first time I was off to the side and watching," he told New Scientist. "I was amazed at what I saw."

Afterwards, he and some other Cornell buds started pulling mosh pit videos off of YouTube and applying particle analysis software to them. The statistical distributions of different speeds found within the mosh pits and within gasses were close enough to take a closer look. They both follow what's known as the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, a description of particle motion in situations in which they're allowed to move freely, save for brief collisions with other particles.

Moreover, the researchers found that by tweaking their models, they could create the different mosh pit modes, like circle pits or what they're calling "lane formation," which they were unable to find in the YouTubed real life mosh pits. So, a theoretical mosh pit.

"If you increase the flocking or decrease the density of the simulated moshers, the active participants can break down the circle and just stream through the crowd," Bierbaum said. "I'd be excited to see this, but it would have to be at a very large venue, so that the ends didn't collide with each other to form a circle pit."

So, this is definitely kind of in the realm of ain't-it-cool science, but it could have some meaning for real life. Specifically, the team points at evacuation procedures for large buildings. Which would be another scenario when a bunch of excited people are together behaving randomly, or as one dude says in the the linked post, "a pure expression of energy that's just random."

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Image: Josh Sisk