We know that math makes you smart, but could numbers make a crowd of people, animals, or even plants smart? In a sense, yes. In the March 7, 1907 issue of the science journal Nature, Sir Francis Galton first documented the fascinating phenomenon popularly known as “the wisdom of the crowd.” He observed that at a country fair where people were invited to estimate the weight of a fat ox, the individual guesses were far off but the average of all the guesses came remarkably close–within 1%–of the actual weight. (Bonus: If the average estimate of 1207 lbs was 0.8% higher than the true weight, what was the actual weight of the ox? See answer at end of this post.)
This kind of “wise” crowd decision-making is also well documented in animals (such as honeybees looking for a new nest site), where it is called “swarm intelligence.” Now, scientists are exploring the idea that plants may use this kind of “wise” collective decision making as well, particularly in their roots. An example of this is how myriad roots (about 13,815,672 in a barley plant) can grow to exploit nutrients they find in the soil. Experiments have also shown that “cutting off a part of a root system triggers a reaction elsewhere.” Scientists are debating whether such communication may happen through nerve-like electrical signals.
But how did Galton make his fascinating discovery in the first place? Galton was highly intrigued by counting. He devoted much of his career to counting different things, developing methods to make sense of all the things he counted (statistics), and applying his methods to fields as diverse as anthropology, heredity, psychometrics, and meteorology. So whether counting with your kindergartner or helping your fifth grader with averages, remember that elementary school math skills provide key foundations for amazing insights into our world.
The ox weighed 1197-1198 lbs.