Today, a colleague of mine sent me a link to a news article entitled Tiny Brained Bees Solve a Complex Mathematical Problem, which appeared on the Queen Mary, University of London web site and on the Guardian web site. Here’s what it says:
Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London have discovered that bees learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers even if they discover the flowers in a different order. Bees are effectively solving the Travelling Salesman Problem, and these are the first animals found to do this.
I think this is actually pretty cool, and I had no idea that bees were capable of this kind of “optimization”. However, the article contains a couple of incorrect statements that are really vexing:
Incorrect Statement 1: “The Travelling Salesman must find the shortest route that allows him to visit all locations on his route. Computers solve it by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest.”
If that were true, we wouldn’t be able to solve the TSP’s with thousands of cities that we can solve today. OR is about being much smarter than simply enumerating all the possible solutions to a problem.
Incorrect Statement 2: “In nature, bees have to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimises travel distance, and then reliably find their way home – not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead! Indeed such travelling salesmen problems keep supercomputers busy for days.”
Wrong again! According to published results (e.g. see here), many 1000-city TSP’s can now be solved in a matter of minutes on a standard desktop computer.