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SYNC: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

Steven Strogatz
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[Reviewed by
Philip J. Davis
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Steven Strogatz, who is professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, has provided us with a layman's introduction to synchronicity. He has given examples, history, contemporary characters whose labs and thoughts are probing and utilizing the phenomenon, judgements on its good and bad sequels. His presentation is eminently readable, informative, light-hearted, breezy, and contains not a little of "Hey Ma, look what I'm doing." He has taken to heart Hawking's precept that each mathematical formula displayed in a text will reduce the potential buyership by 10% — do I have this figure right? Thus, there is no explicit mathematics given either to impress or to instruct. And this, in an area where I believe that the more you know about non-linear dynamical systems, the better you will understand the phenomena discussed.

Synchronology (if I may be permitted to use an old word with a new meaning) is one of the most cross-disciplinary fields there is — R&D Deans and Vice Presidents take notice! It can involve physics, chemistry, technology, biology, psychology, medical practice, cognitive science, mathematics, and sociology, as starters. I forgot to mention astronomy and philosophy. But I, who can claim only a knowledge of classical mechanics, would say to a potential lay reader of SYNC: be not dismayed, because the homespun explanations that Strogatz provides will give you the semblance of understanding.

What is synchronicity? Judging from its Greek roots, it is things happening at the same time such as a good fraction of the TV audience watching the Oscars. But we would rule as unworthy of study the synchronous event wherein a man in Pittsburgh was having Filboid Studge for breakfast while at the very same moment a lady in Stuttgart was writing a check for ž 36.73. (Novelists have used this conceit as a an opening gambit and then gone on to exhibit the underlying connection.)

More technically, synchronicity refers to seemingly disparate events that exhibit the same frequency and phase. Or as Diana Ross sang: "Two hearts that beat as one."

A striking example: the myriads of fireflies along the riverbanks of Malaysia who flash on and off together with such precision that they've become an advertised tourist attraction. Read and learn about these fireflies as coupled oscillators. (New England fireflies are much more independent.)

But, of course, there is inanimate sync. Strogatz reminds us of the pretty story wherein Christian Huygens (1629-1695), who among other things, was a watchmaker, observed that two pendulum clocks in his house tended to settle into comfortable synchronicity. A happenstance? A case of spookery? Or were the two clocks telling each other something,somehow? Read and learn.

Sync does not depend on intelligence, or life, or natural selection. It springs from the deepest source of all: the laws of mathematics and physics. (p. 109)

But is this putting the historical cart before the horse in the service of dramatics? I thought that the laws of math and physics sprang from our representation of the unities that exist in the world.

There is Good Sync: Good Sync occurs when you push your four-year-old on a swing at the right moments. (But watch it!) Then there are lasers, eye surgery, pacemakers, encryption through chaotic lasers, CD players, checkout scanners, the power grid, GPS (global positioning systems; your radio syncs to the station's frequency. (This is good sync, if you happen to think that radio is a boon to humanity.) But even good sync is not without its internal problems as when a power grid causes wide blackouts as it did on November 9, 1965.

There is Bad Sync: the text book story of the platoon of soldiers marching in lock step over a bridge; highway traffic jams not caused by accidents; mass hysteria; the seizures of Japanese children watching an episode of Pokémon on December 16, 1997.

There is Indifferent or Moot Sync: an audience clapping, initially at random and moving gradually towards unison. p. 272. Central European audiences seem prone to this. Hungarian scientists Zoltan Néda and Erszèbet Ravasz have studied this phenomenon and have posted a web site about it.

And of course there is dyssynchrony, or the lack of harmonious interaction; and this can be good or bad. The violins in a large orchestra do not play exactly in sync. There are slight phase differences. And this is good, for I've heard it said that if the violins played precisely in sync, the conductor could replace all the violins by a single violin, properly amplified. Dyssnychrony is moot as when a child's mental development does not keep pace with his/her physical or social development. (Would we miss the accomplishments of people with Asperger's Syndrome?)

If you're looking for something close to sci fi, read how the periods of the Kirkwood gaps in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter are locked into the period of Jupiter by integer ratios and how this leads to an idea which if it "turns out to be right, we have to thank astronomical synchrony not only for killing the dinosaurs, and making room for our ancestors, but also providing the water that made life on earth possible." (p. 126)

Do you go for brain waves? Then read how in 1995

the biologists David Welsh and Steve Reppert at the Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that the brain does contain a population of oscillators with distributed naturals frequencies, which do pull one another into synchrony.... These are the cells of the circadian pacemaker [i.e., periodic, usually biological rhythms], the internal chronometer that keeps us in sync with the world around us. (p. 69)

Brain waves take us rapidly into sync as an explanation of consciousness. And this, inevitably, gets us into the old philosophical question of free will versus determinism.

These studies paint a disconcerting picture of human existence. As we go about our daily business, feeling in charge of our lives, we may be more robotic than we realize, clanking along from one neural state to another, feeling hungry, recognizing a friend's face, remembering to pick up milk on the way home, all depending on which banks of neurons happen to synchronize at any one moment. Some scientists have speculated that consciousness may be the subjective experience of these states of synchrony passing by in our brains. (p. 283)

One of the features of this book is that the author takes us into the intimate (scientific) and networked lives of those happy few who are devoting their energies to synchronicity studies. We see the emergence of their experiments, theories and computations. We meet mathematical biologist Art Winfree (1941-2002), and his Belousov-Zhabotinsky Soup which

changes colors back and forth, rhythmically alternating between sky blue and rusty red dozens of times, before eventually relaxing to equilibrium an hour latter, At the molecular scale... trillions of coupled oscillators... in perfect sync. (p. 213)

We meet Yoshiki Kuramoto who dealt with

a system of infinitely many differential equations, all non-linear, all coupled. And his subsequent analysis that in this case revealed the essence of group synchronization. (p. 55)

We meet Alan Alda, actor and science buff, who wondered about fads such as hula-hoops. (How does one identify a fad? Is Harry Potter a fad?) Could fads be explained by sync theory, which, classically, is limited to rhythmic sync? Later in the story, we hear of the work of Mark Granovetter and of Duncan Watts who have come up with models of fad behavior.

We meet Duncan Watts, a student of Strogatz, and his studies on the synchronization of oscillators that are connected in complex networks. (Incidentally, Watts, in sync with Strogatz, has produced his own book on social networks that readers might like to dip into: Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, W.W. Norton, 2003.)

There is so much more that can be done.

Sleep studies: "The study of biological clocks has become one of the hottest fields in science today." (p. 72)

Human studies: "We still know almost nothing about the laws governing the interaction between genes, or proteins, or people." (p. 259) Think of the sync aspects of war.

After reading, Strogatz' narratives, written with heated, passionate, and self-enchanted enthusiasm, I first felt like yelling out, as did Talleyrand: pas de zèle; cool it a bit. But the feeling soon passed when I recalled that it's the zealots of the world who get anything done — for better or worse.

I was converted; and was like the man in The Graduate (1967) who advised the Dustin Hoffman character to get out of his involvement with Mrs. Robinson and get into (in one word) plastics. I imagined myself saying to an undergraduate, "Young man or young lady" (as the case may be), "get involved with synchronicity. You may not make a fortune, you may possibly advance the cause of humanity, but with certainty, you will be in a field whose fascinations and mysteries are without number."

Philip J. Davis is Professor Emeritus at the Division of Applied Mathematics of Brown University.
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