Sync , by Steven Strogatz
Science Book Reviews

Book Classification : Popular Science - Chaos - Spontaneous Synchronization - Chaotic Systems in Physics and Biology


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Sync : The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven Strogatz
Hardcover - 348 pages
First Edition, February 2003
Published by Hyperion
ISBN 0-7868-6844-9 / ISBN 0786868449

A swarm of fireflies flash in unison, each having reset its own internal clock based on cues from the others. Cornell (formerly Harvard) mathematician Steven Strogatz has made a study of such "coupled oscillators" [3] and has found the general pattern to be common.

"For reasons we don't yet understand, the tendency to synchronize is one of the most pervasive drives in the universe, extending from atoms to animals, from people to planets. Female friends or coworkers who spend a great deal of time together often tend to find that their menstrual cycles tend to start around the same day. Sperm swimming side by side en route to the egg beat their tails in unison, in a primordial display of synchronized swimming. Sometimes sync can be pernicious: Epilepsy is caused by millions of brian cells discharging in pathological lockstep, causing the rhythmic convulsions associated with seizures. Even lifeless things can synchronize. The astounding coherence of a laser beam comes from trillions of atoms pulsating in concert, all emitting photons of the same phase and frequency. Over the course of millennia, the incessant effects of the tides have locked the moon's spin to its orbit. It now turns on its axis at precisely the same rate as it circles the earth, which is why we always see the man in the moon and never the dark side." [14]

But the book Sync : The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven Strogatz (Science)

The conclusion is startling. Strogatz continues:

"All the examples are variables on the same mathematical theme: self-organization, the spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos." [14]

The sinoatrial node is the master clock of the heart. It broadcasts the electrical pulse to tell all heart muscle cells to contract simultaneously. Since it has received a master signal, the heart doesn't have to keep time, but what makes the cells of the sinoatrial node keep time? In 1975, mathematical biologist Charlie Peskin modeled the s.a. node as a resistor-capacitor network. [14-16] Peskin used the mathematics developed by Henri Poincare , whom Strogatz considers "the founder of chaos theory." [18] Strogatz put Penkin's model into a computer. Despite setting all initial conditions to be random voltages, the discharges of electrical circuits were triggered by the discharges of others. "It was spooky," Strogatz writes. "The system was synchronizing itself." [20-21]

Next, assisted by Boston College mathematician Rennie Milollo [24], Strogatz made the model geometric, displaying the output visually as a point automatically moving upward on a curve. [22-23]

The study led to a wider theory of "pulse-coupled oscillators" [19] which exhibit the behavior that came to be called "absorption" -- the fact that, "if one oscillator knocks another over the threshold, they will remain synchronized forever." [23]

Biophysicist John Hopfield of Caltech investigated the similarity between earthquakes and pulse-coupled neurons. His work uncovered the same mathematical patterns as those found in forest fires and the mass extinctions of species. [30-31]

The enzyme luciferase is responsible for the phosphorescence of fireflies. It is astonishing to learn that the blinking of these bugs can be described in terms that could also apply to the booms and crashes of the stock market. [34]

"Unfortunately, our minds are bad at grasping these kinds of problems. We're accustomed to thinking in terms of centralized control, the straightforward logic of cause and effect. But in huge, interconnected systems, where every player ultimately affects every other, our standard ways of thinking fall apart. Simple pictures and verbal arguments are too feeble, too myopic. That's what plagues us in economics when we try to anticipate the effect of a tax cut or a change in interest rates, or in ecology, when a new pesticide backfires and produces dire, unintended consequences that propagate through the food chain." [34]

The synchrony of menstrual cycles was considered by many to be aprocryphal until it was documented in a 1980 study at Wellesley College. A 1998 study determined that the the effect was produced by the unconscious perception of pheromones, a chemical signal. [36-37]

Strogatz credits Norbert Wiener , author of the 1950 book Cybernetics : The Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine . Wiener was the writer who introduced the prefix cyber now used in such modern terms as cyberspace. More importantly, Wiener's book investigated general concepts applicable to all control systems, as diverse as the gap in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the chirping of crickets, and the electroencephalogram (EEG) "brain waves" that are produced by the superposition of the small voltages across the membranes of many cells. [40-42]

The human sleep cycle synchronizes with the cycle of day and night. In a 1972 study, a subject who spent six months in an environment without windows, media access, clocks, or any other indications of time, naturally developed a 26 hour daily cycle. [70-74] Strogatz offers an analogy to clarify what's going on, comparing the organs of body to musicians in an orchestra. [70]

Even the slightest amount of interaction between apparently independent oscillating systems will eventually synchronize them. The 17th century Dutch physicist Christian Huygens found that pendulums swinging side by side would gradually assume out-of-phase cycles, moving closer together then further apart. Huygens correctly attributed this to "imperceptible agitation of the air." [106]

In more modern times, technology has made intentional use of sync, as in the emission of laser light [100-103], the 60 Hertz power grid [115-116], computer clocks [117-118], and GPS satellites [118-119]. But nature produced sync long before humans existed. The same side of the moon always faces the earth because the earth's gravity pulls the moon into a slight deformation, just as the moon's gravity pulls on the earth's oceans in the cycle of the tides. [119-120]. The force of gravity also produced the gap in the asteroid belt which orbits the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. [122-126]

If you've heard others discussing modern physics, and it all seemed mysterious to you, interesting but also unapproachable, you'll appreciate what Strogatz has to say. He looks at sync as in relates to quantum mechanics [127], including a comparison between fermions and bosons, and a discussion of the Bose-Einstein interpretation. He considers such applications as superconductivity. [Chapter 5] The author looks next at Josephson's discovery of the apparently magical teleportation of particles through barriers, by the process called tunneling [Chapter 6]

What makes Sync an especially delightful book is the author's ability to speak in general terms about phenomena as diverse as chirping crickets and laser beams, ovulation and the solar system. Every reader of popular science will be touched emotionally by the new awareness that a simple pattern of nature pervades and unites the wide spectrum of things in and around us.

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

348 pages. b&w illustrations. 14-page 2-column index.

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Sync : The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
by Steven Strogatz
ISBN 0-7868-6844-9 / ISBN 0786868449

Book Description from the Publisher

The moon spins in perfect resonance with its orbit around the Earth; millions of neurons fire together to control our breathing; every night along the tidal rivers of Malaysia, thousands of fireflies flash in silent, hypnotic unison. All of these astonishing feats of synchrony occur spontaneously -- as if the universe had an overwhelming desire for order.

The tendency to synchronize may be the most mysterious and pervasive drive in all of nature. It has intrigued some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Norbert Wiener, Brian Josephson, and Arthur Winfree. But only in the past decade have scientists from disparate disciplines come to the stunning realization that the study of synchrony could revolutionize our understanding of everything from the origin of life to certain types of human behavior.

At once elegant and riveting, Sync tells the story of the dawn of a new science. As one of its pioneers, Steven Strogatz, a leading mathematician in the fields of chaos and complexity theory, explains how enormous systems can synchronize themselves, from the electrons in a superconductor to the pacemaker cells in our hearts. He shows that although these phenomena might seem unrelated on the surface, at a deeper level there is a connection, forged by the unifying power of mathematics.

Along with vivid explanations of cutting-edge theory, Strogatz provides an intimate and highly personal narrative filled with often humorous anecdotes about some of the visionary thinkers of our time. He also describes the startling applications of this new knowledge, such as the harnessing of synchronized electrons to create the world's most sensitive detectors, able to locate oil buried deep underground and to pin- point diseased tissues associated with epilepsy and heart arrhythmias.

From life's little curiosities to the grandest unsolved mysteries of science, Sync explores such questions as:

  • Why traffic jams can occur even when there's no accident or other apparent cause
  • Why women roommates sometimes find that their menstrual periods occur in sync
  • What caused hundreds of Japanese children to fall into seizures while watching an episode of Pokémon
  • What triggers riots, fads, and mass hysteria
  • How synchrony in the solar system may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs
  • How consciousness arises from the interplay of millions of mindless brain cells

A tour de force of science and prose, Sync reveals the hidden but beautiful order that governs the rhythms of nature and the rhythms of ourselves.

About the Author

Steven Strogatz received his doctorate from Harvard University and served on the faculties of Harvard and MIT before becoming a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University in 1994. Widely recognized for his groundbreaking discoveries in chaos and complexity theory, he has received numerous awards throughout his career, including MIT's highest teaching prize and a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the White House. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife, Carole, and their two daughters, Leah and Joanna.

Book Reviews

" Sync is a wonderfully lucid and thoroughly entertaining story of the emerging science of synchrony. Steven Strogatz, a leading researcher and renowned teacher, takes the reader on a thrilling ride -- from orbital patterns to sleep cycles, from flashing fireflies to heart rhythms, from traffic patterns to brain waves -- all the while showing how synchrony gives powerful insight into a breathtaking array of scientific puzzles. With its contagious enthusiasm, and clarity of expression, Sync gives us a compelling glimpse into what makes our universe tick."

-- Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe : Superstrings,
Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
,
Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University

"Beautifully written and breathtaking in scope, Sync tells both a personal and a scientific story. On the human side, this book is about the joy of discovery, and the unlikely chain of people, thoughts, observations, friendships, and insights that create a new science. On the scientific side, Sync is filled with page after page of brilliantly crafted explanation that will enlighten and delight every reader, from novice to expert. I learned a lot from Sync , and it was truly a pleasure to read."

-- Charles S. Peskin, Professor of Mathematics and Neural Science, New York University

"A grand tour of one of the most important frontiers of science . . . As intriguing and philosophically profound as Chaos, only it addresses the reverse phenomenon: the many instances of surprising order in nature."

-- Paul Hoffman , author of The Man Who Loved Only Numbers : The Story of
Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth

and
Wings of Madness : Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight

"The fun and camaraderie of research sparkle among pools of scientific insight in this multistrand necklace woven, by Steve Strogatz, with deftness and panache a kin to Stephen Jay Gould's "

-- Harrison White, Giddings Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

" Sync is a fast-paced, witty account of the ways rhythms become spontaneously organized. Using metaphor and anecdotes to illustrate his deep insights, Steven Strogatz has crafted a masterpiece that immerses the reader in the excitement of scientific discovery."

-- Leon Glass, Isadore Rosenfeld Chair in Cardiology and Professor of Physiology, McGill University

" Sync is a terrific book -- it's not only fireflies and heart muscles that work together for life, Steve Strogatz tells so well how scientists do too."

-- Gilbert Strang, Professor of Mathematics, MIT

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Sync : The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
by Steven Strogatz
ISBN 0-7868-6844-9 / ISBN 0786868449

Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher

Reprinted from pages 1 through 3 of the Preface from Sync by Steven Strogatz

At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat: the sound of cycles in sync. It pervades nature at every scale from the nucleus to the cosmos. Every night along the tidal rivers of Malaysia, thousands of fireflies congregate in the mangroves and flash in unison, without any leader or cue from the environment. Trillions of electrons march in lockstep in a superconductor, enabling electricity to flow through it with zero resistance. In the solar system, gravitational synchrony can eject huge boulders out of the asteroid belt and toward Earth; the cataclysmic impact of one such meteor is thought to have killed the dinosaurs. Even our bodies are symphonies of rhythm, kept alive by the relentless, coordinated firing of thousands of pacemaker cells in our hearts. In every case, these feats of synchrony occur spontaneously, almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order.

And that raises a profound mystery : Scientists have long been baffled by the existence of spontaneous order in the universe. The laws of thermodynamics seem to dictate the opposite, that nature should inexorably degenerate toward a state of greater disorder, greater entropy. Yet all around us we see magnificent structures -- galaxies, cells, ecosystems, human beings -- that have somehow managed to assemble themselves. This enigma bedevils all of science today. Only in a few situations do we have a clear understanding of how order arises on its own. The first case to yield was a particular kind of order in physical space involving perfectly repetitive architectures. It's the kind of order that occurs whenever the temperature drops below the freezing point and trillions of water molecules spontaneously lock themselves into a rigid, symmetrical crystal of ice. Explaining order in time, however, has proved to be more problematic. Even the simplest possibility, where the same things happen at the same times, has turned out to be remarkably subtle. This is the order we call synchrony.

It may seem at first that there's little to explain. You can agree to meet a friend at a restaurant, and if both of you are punctual, your arrivals will be synchronized. An equally mundane kind of synchrony is triggered by a reaction to a common stimulus. Pigeons startled by a car backfiring will all take off at the same time, and their wings may even flap in sync for a while, but only because they reacted the same way to the same noise. They're not actually communicating about their flapping rhythm and don't maintain their synchrony after the first few seconds. Other kinds of transient sync can arise by chance. On a Sunday morning, the bells of two different churches may happen to ring at the same time for a while, and then drift apart. Or while sitting in your car, waiting to turn at a red light, you might notice that your blinker is flashing in perfect time with that of the car ahead of you, at least for a few beats. Such sync is pure coincidence, and hardly worth noting.

The impressive kind of sync is persistent. When two things keep happening simultaneously for an extended period of time, the synchrony is probably not an accident. Such persistent sync comes easily to us human beings, and, for some reason, it often gives us pleasure. We like to dance together, sing in a choir, play in a band. In its most refined form, persistent sync can be spectacular, as in the kickline of the Rockettes or the matched movements of synchronized swimmers. The feeling of artistry is heightened when the audience has no idea where the music is going next, or what the next dance move will be. We interpret persistent sync as a sign of intelligence, planning, and choreography.

So when sync occurs among unconscious entities like electrons or cells, it seems almost miraculous. It's surprising enough to see animals cooperating -- thousands of crickets chirping in unison on a summer night; the graceful undulating of schools of fish -- but it's even more shocking to see mobs of mindless things falling into step by themselves. These phenomena are so incredible that some commentators have been led to deny their existence, attributing them to illusions, accidents, or perceptual errors. Other observers have soared into mysticism, attributing sync to supernatural forces in the cosmos.

Until just a few years ago, the study of synchrony was a splintered affair, with biologists, physicists, mathematicians, astronomers, engineers, and sociologists laboring in their separate fields, pursuing seemingly independent lines of inquiry. Yet little by little, a science of sync has begun coalescing out of insights from these and other disciplines. This new science centers on the study of "coupled oscillators." Groups of fireflies, planets, or pacemaker cells are all collections of oscillators -- entities that cycle automatically, that repeat themselves over and over again at more or less regular time intervals. Fireflies flash; planets orbit; pacemaker cells fire. Two or more oscillators are said to be coupled if some physical or chemical process allows them to influence one another. Fireflies communicate with light. Planets tug on one another with gravity. Heart cells pass electrical currents back and forth. As these examples suggest, nature uses every available channel to allow its oscillators to talk to one another. And the result of those conversations is often synchrony, in which all the oscillators begin to move as one.

Those of us working in this emerging field are asking such questions as: How exactly do coupled oscillators synchronize themselves, and under what conditions? When is sync impossible and when is it inevitable? What other modes of organization are to be expected when sync breaks down? And what are the practical implications of all that we're trying to learn?

Continued ....

Copyright © 2003 Steven Strogatz

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ISBN 0-7868-6844-9 / ISBN 0786868449

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