On Microbial Intelligence: A Tribute to Eshel Ben Jacob - Episode 1

אשל בן-יעקב Born April 13, 1952 (Haifa, Israel )– Died June 5, 2015 (aged 63)
On Microbial Intelligence: A Tribute to Eshel Ben Jacob - Episode 1

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Episode 1

Ben-Gurion Airport, 2016

 It is 4:30 AM and we are in Tel Aviv at Ben-Gurion airport. Thanks to my friend Oscar, we made it on time for our flight back to London after a short 1-hour sleep. We’d been in Israel for two weeks and we spent the last night at a bar in Tel Aviv until 3:00 AM. The people there were very friendly, and the owner was a fan of Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt who was overthrown during the Arab Spring in 2011. At the bar, we met a couple of guys who seemed to be smart, and one of them could remember the dialogues of entire episodes of Monty Python and thought that Picasso was a fool. In hindsight, I don’t know who the fool was that night. I’d been drinking until late that night and if not for Oscar who could hear the alarm, we would have missed the flight to London.

Inside the airport was an exhibition on a long wall with large pictures of people who won the Israel Prize, the highest cultural honor in Israel. It starts with the visages of Maimonides and Einstein. The airport was almost empty and silent. I walked along that wall, where the pictures of a sharp-eyed Daniel Kahneman, Eviatar Nevo, and many more were hanging. Then I came across a large picture of a bacterial colony with a beautiful fractal pattern. I immediately recognized the genus; it was Paenibacillus, a group of bacteria that grew into artistic fractal colonies. I read the caption and there was a little picture of my imaginary friend Eshel Ben Jacob. Why did I call him my friend when I didn’t know him personally? Maybe because I was familiar with his work, and I had a picture of Paenibacillus from one of his famous papers hanging out in front of my desk back in Lincoln (UK). In the early 1990s he discovered two species in the genus Paenibacillus that exhibit some of the most fascinating patterns: P. dendritiformens and P. vortex.

A contructed panel showing various colonies from the genus Paenibacillus
Pattern-forming Paenibacillus bacteria (Eshel Ben Jacob)

I’ve always wanted to meet Eshel Ben Jacob after I discovered his pioneering work on bacterial collective behavior as a physicist. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2015, a year before I came to Israel. I didn’t know he died until that moment in front of his smiling figure on the wall where the caption read: 1952-2015. I don’t know if it was because of that or due to my intense experience in Israel that I walked to a large window far from everyone, looking at the planes, and I let some tears fall silently.

Eshel Ben Jacob
Eshel Ben Jacob (credit: Eshel's Facebook page)

 Back in Lincoln, my view of the Paenibacillus picture hanging out in front of my desk gradually shifted from something that I admired purely for its scientific and artistic beauty to something more emotional, and I became obsessed with it. Through this image, I had become more intrigued by Eshel Ben Jacob than ever before. I wanted to know more about the man behind that work, about his life and his scientific contributions as a physicist in the field of microbiology. I was already surrounded by physicists, mathematicians, and engineers and the conference I attended in Israel was about the physics of the microscale applied to microbial life. I knew that a big shift in biology was taking place thanks to physicists. But going from a purely mechanical understanding of microbial behavior to developing a Social-IQ score for bacteria, putting forward the idea that microbes might be “intelligent” as some of Eshel’s work, and others, suggested is quite a leap. I was intrigued and this would require a bit more than physics alone to convince me, a biologist, and I wanted to know more.

 Eight years had passed since that trip, and I kept moving from one place to another. Finally, a conjecture of life had allowed me to sit back today and write this down.

 I know that speaking of microbial intelligence might seem a controversial matter but let me be clear. Ben Jacob’s work was not focused on bacterial intelligence but about using physics to understand natural phenomena such as pattern formation of snowflake to collective behavior of complex systems from bacteria to neurons. For an overview of Eshel Ben-Jacob’s work on collective phenomena, I suggest an easy read and  brilliant perspective by one of his friends and longue time collaborator, Prof. Herbert Levine, whom I had the pleasure to meet a couple of months ago. I will come to that in the last Episode.

 The Social-IQ score for bacteria was a brilliant and provocative idea that quickly attracted media attention at the time when it was published. Though it was more a measure of bacterial communication strategies using a known metric, rather than assessing intelligence per se as defined in human societies. But could all the known “intelligence” in nature originate from bacterial-like communication strategies?

 The IQ test itself is a debatable metric, However, the question of bacterial and microbial intelligence in general is a fascinating one in the context of recent development of large language models (LLMs) based Artificial Intelligence (AI), such as Chatgpt, Claude, Gemini and Lama, for example.

 Eshel was not the first one who had used physics to study microbes but was a pioneer and a visionary in the way he tackled complex systems and an artist when it comes to bacteria. In this blog post series, I hope the reader is not afraid entering the human reality distortion field (RDF) and take a short ride to push the limits of perception into an open space for ideas, through Ben Jacob's legacy, and explore the fascinating realm of microbes and their “intelligence” in a non-academic way.


To be continued in the next episode.

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Physical Sciences > Physics and Astronomy > Biophysics
Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Microbiology
Artificial Intelligence
Mathematics and Computing > Computer Science > Artificial Intelligence
Creativity and Arts Education
Humanities and Social Sciences > Education > Creativity and Arts Education
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Cognitive Psychology > Intelligence