As I try to reestablish my blogging rhythms here, I couldn’t help but wonder how much excitement will be generated by a recent story making the rounds due to an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Here’s the an excerpt from a University of the West of England press release:
A paper entitled ‘Slime Mould Imitates Development of Roman Roads in the Balkans’ has just been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The unique heuristic abilities of the slime mould, Plasmodium polycephalum, inspired the scientists to apply the method for the first time in archaeology.
Co-author Andrew Adamatzky, a professor in unconventional computing from UWE Bristol, said, “We used acellular slime mould P. polycephalum to analyse the historical development of the ancient Roman road network in the Balkans.
“Plasmodium is a single cell organism which – when foraging for food – spans its environment with a network of tubes that under strictly controlled conditions can reproduce human-made transport networks such as roads or railways. Research done during the last decade has shown that the slime mould can physically imitate technological artefacts and processes in a variety of ways undetected by conventional computational methods.
“After conducting a series of experiments and with the help of a computer-based simulation the team discovered that the slime mould managed to develop a network of tubes providing a good match to the network of roads that served the needs of Roman Empire from around 100 BC to 400 AD and its expansion into the Balkans 2000 years ago.
“The living mould not only reproduced the two major military roads that crossed the area, Via Egnatia and Via Diagonalis but also the smaller roads or routes connecting the hinterland of the Balkans with the coastal Aegean area.” […]
As might be expected, the original report is behind a paywall … the free abstract from Science Direct isn’t exactly helpful either:
Due to its unexpected computing abilities, Physarum polycephalum, a vegetative stage of acellular slime, has been repeatedly used during the last decade in order to reproduce transport networks. After conducting a series of biological experiments and with the help of a Cellular Automata (CA) model we try to explore the ability of the slime in order to imitate the Roman road network in the Balkans, an area which was of great strategic importance for the stability of the Roman Empire in the East. The application of Physarum machines hopes to offer a first step towards a new interdisciplinary, almost unconventional, approach to archaeology.
We still don’t know exactly what these unconventional interdisciplinarians did, but fortunately someone does seem to have had accessed the study … over at Popular Science, inter alia:
Using a map of the Balkans made of agar gel, the researchers placed oat flakes in the locations of 17 major Roman cities. The mold was placed initially on the oat flake for Thessaloniki, a city in the northern Aegean region that was a major urban center at the time (and still the second-largest city in Greece today). The researchers ran the experiment 18 times, with the mold starting its spread from Thessaloniki for each run. The molds recreated with remarkable accuracy a network of roads similar to that used by the ancient Romans, even tracing out paths of relatively unknown and obscure roads like the West-Pontian road traveling northeast though the Balkans. […]
- Slime Molds Help Researchers Map Ancient Roadways (Popular Science)
So basically, they put food on the cities and waited for the slime to find it. It’s apparently an amazing thing that this mould travels in straight lines, but I’m not sure why. Just to get an idea of the process, though, this sort of thing has existed on Youtube for ages. Here’s the Tokyo subway, e.g.:
… or the U.S.:
Somehow I don’t think this is going to have the impact the Journal seems to think it will …