Mosh pits may help plan disaster evacuations

Fans of moshing (also called 'slamdancing' oh-so-many years ago) may only be joining in a mosh pit for the wild, chaotic fun of it, but physicists have figured out that there's actually a certain amount of logic in the chaos, and they have used this to model how crowds behave in emergencies.

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Cornell University physics graduate student (and moshing fan) Jesse Silverberg observed the motions of moshers while at a club one night and was struck by how much they looked like the movements of schools of fish and blocks of birds. Working with two of his colleagues, Matthew Bierbaum and James Sethna, he found videos of mosh pits online, cleaned them up and converted them into two-dimensional simulations. What they saw was that the movements of the dancers closely resembled 'Brownian motion' — the chaotic motion of atoms in a gas.

They put together a javascript model of the simulation (click here), and along with their supervisor Itai Cohen, they wrote a paper on it, called "Collective Motion of Moshers at Heavy Metal Concerts" which was published online last week in Cornell University's (here).

Although it's certain that Silverberg, Bierbaum and Sethna had fun putting this study together, it does have a practical application — modeling human behaviour in chaotic situations.

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By examining the motion of the 'slammers' and the 'bystander', researchers may be able to use this to predict how a panicked crowd moves, grows and affects those around it. Even the screen-capture, above, shows that the 'slammers' have already drawn a few 'bystanders' into their midst, revealing how innocents can get caught up in a chaos and be carried along with the crowd or get trampled.

Further study into this may even help plan building exits or evacuation routes to avoid casualties during a disaster.

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