Not All Who Wander Are Lost

How ants have solved the Traveling Salesman Problem. /

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, but you are venturing out into the world to pick up some food for your boss for a dinner party. (Running errands for the boss? On a weekend? Yeah, well, try saying “no” to her highness.) The children at home seem to be constantly hungry; they’ll probably need to be fed again soon. Oh, and I suppose you should probably pick up something for yourself while you’re at it. A trip to the grocery store sounds simple enough. There’s just one catch: the aisles aren’t labeled, because the food isn’t organized in aisles, because the grocery store isn’t a store at all but rather the entire outside world.

Did I mention you were an ant?

I’m amazed ants can find anything. My local grocery store completely reorganized its shelves a few months ago, and my mind is still catching up. The pears seem like they are in a different spot each week. Pizza nights send me in circles because the pizza crust and the pizza sauce are no longer neighbors. I still can’t find aluminum foil without help. At least the building is in the same spot, and it always has milk and eggs. Ants never know if they are going to find anything and what or where it might be. It seems like they should starve, and yet the Bible holds up ants as model food collectors.

One thing ants have going for them is that they are tiny, so a little food goes a long way. They don’t all have to fend for themselves; they can work together to share what one ant finds. The first ant to find food brings what it can carry back to the colony. On the way, it lays down a pheromone trail—a chemical road sign saying “This way to food.” Other ants follow the trail and bring back more ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 46 / April 14, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from April 14, 2016

    Issue 46: Gorgeous feathers, Cairo’s cave churches, ant trails, and clouds. /

  2. Simply Beautiful Feathers

    A display of birds’ useful adornments. /

  3. From Garbage to Glory

    The cave churches of Cairo offer sanctuary in the midst of squalor. /

  4. Under the Cloud

    Five amazing facts about the fluffy, immense formations above our heads. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 46: Links to amazing stuff.

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