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Many Minds

Jun 8, 2022

Right now, as I’m recording this, there’s an astonishing spectacle unfolding in the forests of Tennessee. Every June, vast swarms of Photinus carolinus fireflies light up the night there. The members of this particular species don’t just blink erratically and independently. They sync up; they flash in a dazzling unison, creating waves of light that seem to propagate through the forest. But how do they do it? How do these tiny creatures pull off such a brilliant display?

My guest today is Dr. Orit Peleg. She’s an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and the BioFrontiers Institute, at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Though a physicist by training, Orit and her lab focus on the dynamics of living systems, and they have recently taken up the puzzle of firefly synchrony.

Here, we talk about what it’s like to do fieldwork on fireflies. We discuss the colorful history of research in this area and how the phenomenon of firefly synchrony was originally contested and explained away. We talk about what Orit and her team have learned about the mechanisms of this synchrony—and about their methods, which include rich in-the-wild recordings, experiments involving tents and LEDs, and a fair bit of modeling and math. We also touch on the firing of neurons, the pulsing of heart cells, the clapping of hands, and other examples of synchronization in the natural world.

As always, if you’re enjoying the show, we would really appreciate a rating or review or a recommendation to a friend. Thanks so much in advance for your support.

Alright, friends, on to my chat with Dr. Orit Peleg. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

2:30 – A video of firefly synchrony, produced by the Peleg lab from their own data, is available here. Other videos are here and here. A general audience essay about firefly synchrony that Dr. Peleg wrote is here; another general audience essay about the Peleg lab’s work on fireflies is here. Firefly photography is an entire genre these days.

3:15 – Dr. Peleg and collaborators have conducted fieldwork on fireflies (different species) in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arizona.

8:00 – The website of the mathematician and popularizer Steven Strogatz.

11:00 – An example of Dr. Peleg’s work on bee swarms. A popular article she wrote on the topic.

13:30 – An example of an early report on firefly synchrony in Science magazine. Pioneering earlier work by Buck & Buck on the topic. An interview with Lynn Faust.

20:00 – Our previous episode on bat signals also discussed the issue of a congested signalling channel.

24:00 – Dr. Peleg and her lab have put out a number of studies on firefly synchrony in recent years—see here, here, and here (preprint).

32:00 – An academic review of the “integrate and fire” model.

34:00 – A video of an audience applauding and eventually syncing up.

40:00 – An article about the work of Todd Oakley on bioluminescence in sea fireflies. Edith Widder’s book, Below the Edge of Darkness.

42:30 – An article by Dr. Peleg and a colleague on dung beetle navigation.


Dr. Peleg recommends:

Silent Sparks, by Sara Lewis

Sync, by Steven Strogatz

David Attenborough’s Life that Glows


You can read more about Dr. Peleg’s work at her website and follow her on Twitter.


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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