Caught in a mosh, scientists study collective behavior in restricted space

Caught in a mosh, scientists study collective behavior in restricted space

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News & Events - Engineering News

February 20, 2013

The dynamics of a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert may seem to be an unlikely source for engineering research, but a recent study by a physics team at Cornell University may provide clues as to how human beings are likely to react in emergency situations.

According to The Atlantic, heavy metal is one of the few musical genres that inspire "moshing" in concert attendees, a form of dancing that to the outside observer resembles nothing more than barely-controlled chaos. However, research undertaken by the scientists at Cornell revealed that music-lovers who engage in this collective behavior react in a way that mimics the movement of molecules in gas, with the random nature of the mosh pit actually conforming to a set of well-established scientific concepts.

Random movement
"Moshers, as they move randomly, colliding with one another in an undirected fashion, seem a lot like gas particles," said Jesse Silverburg, the lead researcher on the project. "It turns out that the statistical description we use for gasses matches the behavior of people in mosh pits. In other words, people bounce around like the molecules in a gas."

The team studied videos of heavy metal concerts, allocating a series of markers to identify how individuals behaved in response to stimuli such as loud music, increased beats per minute and flashing lights. They then simplified this further, by comparing the reactions of "moshers to that of a simple soft-bodied particle." 

Some participants were then identified as Mobile Active Simulated Humanoids - MASHers - who were subject to random fluctuations in "the forces they experience," while other attendees were found to remain relatively static. While the study only looked at data from heavy metal concerts, these collisions between human beings in a confined space may provide engineering answers to the problems caused by groups of people fleeing a building or in a potential riot situation.

Collective motion
Silverburg, a self-confessed fan of the music, believes that his study of mosh pits could prove interesting for civil engineers who are involved in the design of sports stadiums or commercial buildings, while it may also allow emergency services a better understanding of the dynamics of a large - possibly intoxicated- crowd. 

"Being on the outside for the first time, I was absolutely amazed at what I saw - there were all sorts of collective behaviors emerging that I never would have noticed from the inside," he said.

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