Noise is usually nothing more than a disturbance, but sometimes it can be useful. Researchers have discovered that noise could bring order to chaotic systems, protect and maintain entire marine ecosystems, and even make the chemical industry greener. This research is reported today in a special Einstein Year issue of the New Journal of Physics (www.njp.org) published jointly by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft).
Changsong Zhou and a group of physicists at the University of Potsdam, Germany, are studying chaotic systems, known as excitable media. The firing of neurons in the brain is an example of such a system, as is the growth and receding of blooms of plankton in the sea. Such systems do not become excited by small signals but if they are stimulated above a threshold amount, then they give it their all: neurons fire and plankton blooms. “Similarly, excitable non-linear behaviour is also found in chemical reactions”, explains Zhou, “where an external pressure or light can push a reaction down one route instead of another.”
Zhou and his colleagues have found that the key to this sort of excitation is chaotic mixing and noise. The researchers demonstrated how a non-linear system can be controlled to become synchronized even when its stimulus is below the threshold by the addition of noise to the system.
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