It’s sometimes taken for granted that, in groups, people can behave a lot like a fluid or a granular material. This allows scientists to adapt models developed for those materials to understand how crowds move. But in doing so, it’s always important to test just how far the comparison holds; in other words, just how much does a crowd of people behave like a fluid or granular material?
That’s the purpose behind the experiment you see above, where a dense crowd of people shift in response to a “cylindrical intruder”. This is a classic experiment for something like a granular material, and there are clear similarities. Most of the crowd’s shifting comes only a short way from the intruder, and their passage leaves a small, empty wake that slowly fills back up.
But other aspects of the experiment are very different from the granular equivalent. Instead of moving only when contact forces cause them to, the crowd shifts in anticipation of the intruder’s passage. They also use a more confined motion; crowd members primarily shift to the side to allow the intruder by, whereas grains tend to follow a more circular pattern of motion. Interestingly, if the intruder approaches from behind – and thus crowd members cannot anticipate them – the crowd’s motions will actually better match a granular material. (Image and research credit: A. Nicholas et al., source)