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Birds, bees and chants

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-06-2014 Dilip D'Souza

My neighbour retired last November from the game he graced for a quarter-century. (Cricket, that is). His fans have by no means retired. They can be found at nearly any time of day, gawking at his home, hanging around in the hope of seeing him.

And every few days, some small gang will come by and belt out the chant that became so familiar that my neighbour himself referred to it in his farewell speech. You know: “Sa-chi-i-i-n, Sa-chin!”

Most cricket nuts have, I’m sure, both heard this and chanted it many times. But if it’s familiar, it’s also an odd little puzzle. For one thing, the entire stadium will decide to start chanting it, at the same instant. For another, I believe it is invariably sung to a particular musical note. The same every time. And after verifying this with a harmonica, a piano and my own otherwise besura voice, I say it with some authority: that note is the “A” above middle C on a piano, or dha on the sa-re-ga-ma scale (if sa corresponds to that middle C). Try it for yourself.

What’s happening here? Why and how this collective coordination from several thousand individuals?

But give me a few moments before I try answering that. Feats such as this are by no means unique to Tendulkar fans. American basketball crowds have for many years done something similar. When someone from the visiting team shoots a ball that entirely misses the basket, the crowd will immediately, spontaneously, break into a chant of “Air ball! Air ball!” This, of course, is an attempt to make the hapless shooter wish he had never been born. That apart, it shares things with the “Sa-chin!” chant. Those audiences also manage to coordinate their efforts, both in timing and in musical pitch. In their case, it’s “F”(ma) for the “air”, and “D” (re) for “ball”.

As the humour columnist Dave Barry noted, this is a stunning achievement for Americans. For if you “listen to a random group of Americans attempting to sing Happy Birthday”, he once wrote, “at any given moment they somehow manage to emit more different notes, total, than there are group members”.

That apart too, a professor of English called Cherrill P. Heaton actually studied the “Air ball” chant. He attended hundreds of basketball games (tough job, research), but in his 1992 paper (Air Ball: Spontaneous Large Group Precision Chanting), Heaton confessed that he had no idea why this phenomenon happens. Or how. Just that it happens. And oddly, it happens more often in college games than in professional basketball. “Perhaps the pro game is viewed by its fans as more serious business than the college game,” he surmised.

If you think about it, many other remarkable instances of collective behaviour arise from individual actions. Crowds at games will suddenly do the Mexican wave. Mobs can, if urged on by a demagogue, collectively do some ghastly things. Bees do it twofold: their individual actions create perfectly hexagonal shapes from the wax they secrete, and they fashion thousands of these individual hexagonal cells into one large beehive. Starlings form huge clouds that move and wheel—often reacting to a predator in the area—in mesmerizing “murmurations”. (Spend a couple of minutes watching them do it in A Bird Ballet)

Everything we learn about the world suggests that these various individuals must somehow be communicating with each other, so they can coordinate. In a Mexican wave, it might work thus: perhaps one section of the crowd sees another section getting the wave going, and joins in at the right time. But what about “Sa-chin” suddenly bursting forth?

What about bees? What about starlings?

A team of Italian scientists found the beginnings of an answer among the starlings. They compared the flocks to “systems poised on the brink, capable of instantaneous transformation”—like a mass of snow about to turn into an avalanche. Some tiny event—one flake falls, one starling spots a hawk—then cascades through the whole system.

“The change in the behavioural state of one animal,” they wrote, “affects and is affected by that of all other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is.” Each bird reacts to its immediate neighbours, and this ripples so swiftly through the flock that they appear to move as one.

And this suggests how the “Sa-chin” chant happens. A crowd of Tendulkar fans is, in a sense, primed to chant his name. (Like a mass of snow is primed to fall). One guy says the word, his neighbours join in, their an instant, the whole crowd is bellowing his name. All because everyone knows it and expects to chant it during the game.

After all, how many would join in if you shouted “Sa-chin” at a basketball game in the US?

No, they’d look at you strangely. And then they’d get going with “Air ball!” But F and D, to your A. That puzzle, still to be resolved.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. A Matter of Numbers will explore the joy of mathematics, with occasional forays into other sciences.

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