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Avalanche dynamics in a pile of rice


THE idea of self-organized criticality1(SOC) is commonly illustrated conceptually with avalanches in a pile of sand grains. The grains are dropped onto a pile one by one, and the pile ultimately reaches a stationary 'critical' state in which its slope fluctuates about a constant angle of repose, with each new grain being capable of inducing an avalanche on any of the relevant size scales. Some numerical models of sand-pile dynamics do show SOC1–8, hut the behaviour of real sand piles remains ambiguous9–18. Here we describe experiments on a granular system—a pile of rice—in which the dynamics exhibit self-organized critical behaviour in one case (for grains with a large aspect ratio) but not in another (for less elongated grains). These results show that SOC is not as 'universal' and insensitive to the details of a system as was initially supposed1, but that instead its occurrence depends on the detailed mechanism of energy dissipation.

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Frette, V., Christensen, K., Malthe-Sørenssen, A. et al. Avalanche dynamics in a pile of rice. Nature 379, 49–52 (1996).

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