This is the first simulation of its kind that has tried to account for effects of fluid flows in populations of rotating colloids, the researchers say. The results underscore just how important that fluid flow can be in these systems.

"Even just that simple interaction — rotation creating disturbances in the fluid — gives us all this complex behavior," said Vlahovska, associate professor of engineering at Brown and the paper's senior author. "At the micron scale, you can't ignore the fluid. It's a force that has to be reckoned with."

Ultimately, the researchers hope that simulations like this one could help scientists to harness emergent behavior to make new materials.

"It is expensive to do experiments in the lab, hoping to discover just by serendipity some new behavior or new material," Lushi said. "Computer simulations are much cheaper to perform, and can give experimentalists a useful set of parameters for what kinds of interesting dynamics could be seen in the system.