"Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order" is a dissertation on synchronization and its place in the universe. Standard entropy theory has always indicated that a system that is orderly will, over time, move to a position of less and less organization. However, that is not always consistent with observations in real life. Steven Strogatz does an inspired job of describing how synchronization exists in such small areas as fireflies and plant leaves to much larger concepts of the universe and the asteroid belt in our solar system.
One of the more fascinating sections of the book deals with synchronization in human beings. It covers current research in areas such as sleep rhythms, circadian rhythms, the tendency for women to match menstrual cycles over time, body temperature rhythms, and various other normal cycles of the human experience.
This is a very academically oriented text that many with only a passing interest in such things might find too detailed and scientific for their likes. On the other hand, for those with a keen interest in the cycles of the natural world and current research into this emerging field this is one of the foremost texts on the subject. It is a highly recommended read for anyone with a desire to learn about how natural tendencies toward synchronization move us to spontaneous order.
Review of Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, by Steven Strogatz
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, IEEE Senior Member and author of over 3500 articles.
Two thumbs up! This entertaining and informative book is one of the few I would read twice. You know those lists of books you'd want to have if you were stranded on a desert island? Sync made my list.
While Sync is fact-filled, it's far from dry. Throughout the text, Strogatz made me laugh out loud-reminding me very much of the engaging, "can't put it down" writing style used by Bill Bryson (author of Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail and The Lost Continent).
Strogatz takes a complex topic, and explains it in a way that even folks with no innate interest in the topic will find enjoyable. I learned quite a bit about how and why everything from atoms to planets will suddenly act in unison-or not do so. My newly-gained understanding of the relationship between sleep cycles and body temperature cycles has already helped me make some positive changes. Then there's the explanation of traffic....
Not once did Strogatz use an intimidating equation-or any equation at all. Instead, he treats the reader to rich metaphors, analogies, and examples. And instead of dry history on how sync got where it is today, Strogatz shares the frustrations, peculiarities, and human drama of the people behind the developments. Strogatz keeps a pace that is more in line with a Tom Clancy novel than a book focused on a science topic.
The ending made me go back to the beginning-to the dedication, actually. I never cared about dedications, before. However this one really meant something to me after I read Sync. Strogatz dedicated Sync to his departed friend Art Winfree, without whom Strogatz would never have taken his fabulous journey and without whom such a marvelous book would not have been possible.
I enjoyed this book. The author does an excellent job of bringing the subject to life, following the history of the research and using clever analogies to gently guide the reader through the significant ideas of sync. Artfully woven in are stories that introduce us to the personalities of those who have made contributions to the field. I often get bored by such biographical details in books, but Strogatz did an excellent job with it -- the book is a surprisingly lively read. You really get from this book a sense of how researchers struggle and collaborate to solve problems in fits and starts, and how exciting it is when those rare breakthroughs are achieved.
So I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes pop science, but there were a couple of things I wish Strogatz had done differently. First, there were many times when, after reading a key paragraph and grokking what it meant, I thought "why didn't he give us a diagram showing ...?" There are a few diagrams in the book, but not many -- perhaps one fifth of what I personally feel was warranted.
The other disappointment -- and in all fairness I have felt this way about many other books as well -- I wish the author had not tried so hard to shield us from the math. I'm pretty sure publishers consider explicit formulas the "kiss of death" for such books, but hey, couldn't you squirrel off in the appendix a section or two about "The Math of Sync" for those who are not allergic? Just a sample -- something to give the idea. As it is, I feel like I got the aroma of the soup but didn't actually get to taste it.
Still, it's a good read, and I congratulate the author.
on March 31, 2003
When you have a flight to catch early in the morning, you'd like to sleep early in the evening. You go to bed but you stay awake until your usual bedtime. When you stay up for a late party, you'd like to sleep in until noon. But you wake up tired and can't fall back asleep. Why can't you sleep for as long as you need to? Why can't you fall asleep when you want to? The culprit is a small cluster of neurons right at the bottom of your brain.
These cells have the amazing power to synchronize their activity to each other and to the cycle of day and night. Their combined effect is to regulate your bodily functions along a fixed 24-hour cycle. Your body temperature, hormone secretions, and a myriad other functions are regulated by this internal clock. And so is your sleep-wake cycle. Your day contains two "forbidden zones," for most people around 10 am and 10 pm, when your brain dictates that you can hardly fall asleep. Slightly after lunch your brain says it's a good time for a nap, as so many cultures discovered on their own. Between 3:00 and 6:00 am, it's so hard to stay awake that shift workers call this time the "zombie zone". Most catastrophic accidents that depend on human error, like Three Miles Island and Chernobyl, occur at this time.
For all of their importance in helping people sleep well and avoid accidents, understanding the neural clock is among the most difficult problems facing science today. It requires understanding how thousands of cells, connected together in complicated ways, manage to coordinate their behavior. New mathematical concepts have been developed over the last few decades to tackle this kind of problem. Synchronization is exhibited by stock markets, brains, and many other things we'd love to understand better. Studying synchronization is part of the larger enterprise of understanding complexity. One of this field's pioneers is Steven Strogatz. His book Sync is the first popular introduction to this groundbreaking investigation. The book is as delightful a read as its topic is timely.
Complexity is fashionable today. Plenty of books about complexity address the general public. In 2002, Stephen Wolfram made a big splash with his A New Kind of Science, in which he argued that complexity demands a radically new scientific approach invented by Wolfram, which uses simple computer programs to understand everything. On close examination, A New Kind of Science turned out to contain few new ideas, and those few turned out to be unpersuasive. To make matters worse, Wolfram's book is repetitive, self-aggrandizing, and poorly written. Like Wolfram's, Strogatz's book is about complexity. Fortunately, the similarities stop here. In every other respect, Sync is diametrically opposite to A New Kind of Science.
In spite of his brilliant achievements, which are documented throughout the book, Strogatz is refreshingly modest. He acknowledges the role of his mentors, colleagues, and students.
Strogatz motivates his choice of topics, links them beautifully to one another, and repeats definitions and explanations when they are needed without ever being verbose. He also respects the general public of nonscientists. He stresses that even the most curiosity-driven scientific research often has life-saving applications. And in his acknowledgements, he thanks the American public for supporting the funding agencies that make science possible. To top it all off, Strogatz is an awesome writer.
PS: Please, let's not attempt to bring intelligent design into serious scientific discussion. Intelligent design is the view that some things were created by one or more non-human intelligent designers. It is a charming hypothesis with no scientific credentials, for the simple reason that there is no scientific evidence that non-human intelligent designers exist, no story about where non-human intelligent designers come from, and no shadow of a theory of how non-human intelligent designers function and manage to create.
on May 3, 2003
SYNC is a romping good read!
Developments in the physical and computer sciences and in nonlinear mathematics in the last two decades have spawned a genre of "popularized science." Some books have been reasonably good and some have been awful. In SYNC, Steve Strogatz gives an example of the genre that is unreasonably good! As far as I can tell, the science and math are accurate, if not complete. The explanations are as clear as they are witty. The phenomena he describes are engaging and compelling. If that were all he did, that would be enough, but he goes even further.
Seeing into the secrets of nature brings with it incredible joy. Some have this experience watching their children being born. Some have it when they construct a logarithmic spiral and use it as a sliderule. People like Strogatz have this experience watching a computer simulation model confirm a hypothesis, discovering others who share the same questions, running across a set of tools or perspectives that shed new light on a thorny problem. In SYNC, Strogatz poignantly shares the excitement and satisfaction of those moments with readers.
Some other popularized science writers have captured this experience in prose. Crick in The Double Helix comes to mind. SYNC is significantly different, though. Strogatz shows himself to be a truly generous and gentle spirit who recognizes and appreciates the community of scholars who feed into and feed from his work. He demonstrates a sociology of science that is about shared inquiry more than it is about competition for funding, position, or prizes. He makes it possible to imagine that synchrony, if there is such a thing in human systems, might emerge in a scientific community pursuing the difficult questions about nonlinear dynamics for which sync is one of the "simple cases."
on April 7, 2003
I have been reading popular science books on self-organization and complexity for the past 7 years and I thought that I had quite broad and deep perspective on the field. Dr. Strogatz's book surprised me with its different, yet very simple and profound look at the nature of self-organization and complexity.
At the heart of this book is the idea that order emerges out of chaos by means synchronization. The author takes us on personal, emotional journey through his years as a scientist, and illustrates phenomenon of syncrhonization in the context of biological, chemical, mechanical, quantum mechanical and social-economical systems.
on June 22, 2005
There are three types of science books. First are monographs, written by scientists for their peers, larded with jargon, and incomprehensible to the general public. Second are books by professional science writers, which read like Tuesday's New York Times - glib and flashy but unreliable because the authors depend on interviews of a necessarily small number of scientists. Finally are those few books by scientists who both know the subject and are able to write. Scientifically reliable and well written, Steven Strogatz's "Synch: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life" is in the last category. Inspired by and dedicated to the late Art Winfree - a biologist who had more intuition than most mathematicians - Strogatz gets the excitement of discovering a new field and of learning to do research down onto the page.
In three well-constructed sections, comprising three or four chapters each, the author leads his readers on a grand tour of his research in nonlinear science over the past two decades, from observations of Indonesian fireflies flashing in time with each other, through brain waves, circadian rhythms, coupled pendula, and quantum condensation (lasers, superconductors, and superfluids), to synchronized chaos and the internet. Throughout, helpful metaphors abound and mathematical equations are avoided, while many important ideas are skillfully introduced and the human side of doing science is artfully described.
One factual error should be noted. In chapter seven, it is stated that in 1979 Edward Lorenz introduced the term "butterfly effect" to underscore the sensitive dependence on initial conditions of chaotic systems, whereas the true year was 1972. This error continues to propagate because science writer James Gleick made it in his popular book entitled "Chaos". It's important to get the year right because the 1970s were an amazing decade in which research in nonlinear science exploded from less than a dozen papers a year to more than a dozen a day. Rather than merely commenting on this historic explosion, Lorenz helped to ignite it.
on September 6, 2006
This is a fun narrative about sync by one of the leading mathematicians in the field. Steven Strogatz combines practical discoveries and personal antidotes as he conveys his own excitement about this emerging new area of science and theoretical physics. It is easy to see why he received MIT's highest teaching prize. Strogatz previously contributed to groundbreaking developments in chaos and complexity theory, the predecessors to Sync, and has a much more broad understanding of the topic than you might get from someone writing from outside the field.
The first part of the book covers some of the most obvious examples of sync in nature, including the unusual cases of synchronous flashing of fireflies in Asia and Tennessee. He goes on to tell how the brain oscillates as well a very useful description of sleep cycles. The oscillations or rhythmic patterns of sync appear in overloaded power grids, giant computer networks, super conductivity at very low temperatures and a host of other types of systems. There is little question that something is out in the world generating patterns, but it is much harder to identify exactly what is going on. Many scientists, like Strogatz believe that Sync is the answer.
Calculus abhors non-linearity and scientist use reductionism to fill in any perceived empty spaces in knowledge, as Strogatz points out. Mainstream science approaches problems by breaking them down into parts. It is an idealized approach in which the, "whole is exactly equal to the sum of the parts." (p. 181) When studying such a system - like a living thing or the climate - linear mathematic models using calculus do not work well. Any time a well engineered system falls apart of blows up the problem is that something happened so that it was out of its equilibrium or normal operating range. Mainstream science can describe things within equilibrium, but it takes something like Sync (and someone like Steven Strogatz) to describe what happens outside of that range, something unexpected that is greater than the sum of the parts. I think that the Strogatz work has helped to made sure that Sync is here to stay.
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending. Sync has not accepted by the most of mainstream scientific community (although many take interest in it), Strogatz gets no Nobel Prize and the world is not saved from the unpredictability of non-linearity. This is one of the great conundrums of science: sync is real, it is out there, everybody can see it, but it is very hard to create predictable scientific models with it. Yet, I cannot blame Strogatz for that. In fact, Strogatz is so good at describing scientific concepts that I find little fault with the book. It does wander all over the place, but more as a tale of adventure than of disorganization. It is a tough topic to write about for 300 pages and keep interesting AND free of any math formulas. If you want formulas look no further than his other book, "Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos," in which he proves that calculus is his native tongue. If you speak it too, "Sync" still serves as a good companion to his other work.
I say that this is nearly a great introduction because Sync is still an emerging science and I would like to have seen just a little more depth. The book comes close to lacking a clear direction and falling hopelessly into the genre of happy popular science pabulum for the masses. Not necessarily a bad thing for a vacation read, but it was written by Steven Strogatz, a major player in his field, not a James Gleick wanna be. I would have liked something not so terribly far away from his text book; a genuine introduction to Sync itself instead of a kissing glance. Maybe next time. Nevertheless, I learned a lot, much of it useful, and it was exceptionally painless (entertaining), so five stars.
For further reading Strogatz provides an extensive list of names of authors and papers that can yield much in a search on Amazon or the web using Google Scholar. For emerging (fringe) theory, try some of the books associated with the Santa Fe Institute; writers like Stewart Kauffman. One of the best hard science texts on biology is "Self-Organization in Biological Systems." Bottom line - there is no better basic introduction to the subject than "Sync" and few that are as entertaining.
Readability rating - 10 of 10
This book reads like a novel, and held me all the way to the very end. There is just enough science and just enough story for a very satisfying combination. The mathematic and scientific vocabulary is not overwhelming and very well explained. From time to time he pads the text, building some literary anticipation, but generally his thoughts are to the point and well presented.
Research rating - 4 of 10
There are a lot of good reference notes, but there is also a lot of incidental information with no reference notes. Not a problem for pop science, but it keeps the book from being scholarly. The endnotes are listed by page and phrase, not by numbers in the text, which minimizes their usefulness. This is unfortunate since there are several notes that are quite informative, even for the general reader. There is no separate bibliography, but the notes are extensive, well organized and many of the papers mentioned are quickly found on the internet. The book may not be the stuff primary sources are made of, for that turn to his other book, but it is a great fun introduction and he does suggest plenty of material for further reading.
on December 16, 2003
Sync is like a report from the trenches. And you like this report because it's clear, fun, and brings good news. There's this undercurrent of activity in the burgeoning realm of complex systems that's more and more bubbling to the surface, and Sync is a big bubble.
There's been a quiet stream of books bringing this realm to our attention, showing novel methods, interesting results, and surprising ways our lives may be changed and affected by it, such as Waldrop's 1992 Complexity, Levy's 1994 Artificial Life, Gleick's 1998 Chaos, Barabasi's 2002 Linked, and now Steven Strogatz's Sync.
These are like threads pervading human culture of the kind that result in a quiet but huge revolution. These threads affect our outlook and, like a good journey, expand the mind to reveal so many new possibilities. Steven Strogatz identifies one thread in Sync, which seems to be moving in decade long spurts: 1960s Cybernetics, 1970s Catastrophe theory, 1980s Chaos theory, 1990s Complexity, and 2000s Synchrony.
I would add that other threads include: the partial elucidation of how the mind works (Pinker, Dennett); the increased understanding of Darwinian evolution, and its manifestation not just in biology but in, for instance, the economy, culture (memes), and business (Dawkins, Maynard Smith); the deeper entanglement in quantum theory (Greene); and our ever increasing perception of the cosmos (Rees, Barrow).
These threads are merely the warp of a fabric. The weft, which traditionally consisted of mathematics (as a tool to explore and describe our world), now also includes algorithms, whose power as an exploratory tool has been enabled by the computer revolution of the past few decades.
Adding lustre to the fabric, Strogatz colourfully tells us the amazing story of synchrony, along with his own unfolding career, all interleaved with related inside glimpses of other scientists and their fascinating contributions. His descriptions are so clear and engaging that you end up learning many details, like how lasers work, how superconductivity functions, and what makes bugs tick. Strogatz himself comes across like the nerdy neighbour that you one day discover is not only really cool, but he's built a time machine that actually works, and you can have a go. And like a good journey, you look back with delight, and can't wait for the next one.
on June 13, 2003
Bright people know their work, brilliant people can explain their work the layperson. Dr. Strogatz is clearly the latter. Dr. Strogatz has provided an accessible piece on the emerging field of synchronization, using everyday examples to illustrate abstract subjects. After reading "Sync," you'll never look at rush hour traffic the same way again. An important book for those liberal arts majors (myself included) amongst us who wonder about what makes the world tick.