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Toby Adkins giving his talk on 'The Wisdom & Madness of Crowds'

The Wisdom & Madness of Crowds - Toby's talk wins physics prize

May 2016

Merton second-year undergraduate Toby Adkins has been awarded first prize in this year's Department of Physics Speaking Competition, repeating the success of last year's winner, Chris Hamilton.

Toby's talk, which took as its starting point the ideas outlined in James Suroweicki's book The Wisdom of Crowds, looked at how the collective intelligence and collaborative power of 'The Crowd' in our increasingly interconnected society can be undermined by more subtle and, potentially, sinister aspects of crowd behaviour—something he sees as a warning for the future that cannot be ignored.

He explained further:

"When I was originally thinking of what to talk about, the web was buzzing with news of Donald Trump's campaign, with most news outlets not even entertaining the opinion that his campaign could have any longevity. Within a few weeks it emerged that this was an oversight.

"This got me thinking about the reasons why this might be, which brought me into the area of collective psychology, and more specifically crowd effects. Everyone knows about 'mob rule mentality', but I wanted to take it a step further and examine some of the subtler aspects of crowd behaviour, and use these to explain phenomena that we observe on a daily basis in society."

Toby was very surprised to have been awarded the £100 prize, considering the fact that his talk had very little to do with physics - "I did manage to squeeze it in there somewhere", he said, "and it must just have been an interesting enough break from all the other talks that they were sufficiently impressed!"

The judges—Professors Jonathan Jones and Alfons Weber and Drs Malcolm John, Claire Gwenlan and Karen Aplin—were very impressed with the quality and delivery of all the presentations they heard, and Toby's director of studies, Professor Simon Hooker, described his achievement as "an excellent outcome".