Research

Crowds as a Fluid

At a low density, crowds of people can behave like a fluid, which has led to numerous hydrodynamically-based crowd models. At higher densities, though, crowds are more like a soft solid, and researchers are adapting models developed for granular materials like sand to describe these crowds. In granular materials, these models help scientists identify how vibrations move through the complex network of grains and what circumstances might cause sudden reorganizations. In a large crowd, this could tell scientists the difference between the innocuous shuffle at a rock concert and the trigger for a deadly stampede. Getting real-world data for comparison is tough – obviously, it’s unethical to intentionally cause a crowd to panic – so thus far the models remain relatively untested. (Image credit: M. Lebrun; research credit: A. Bottinelli and J. Silverberg)

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