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Thoughts About Strogatz's Sync

Lauren's picture


“At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat: the sound of cycles in sync…almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order” (1).

In Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, Cornell professor Steven Strogatz draws upon a vast array of situations in order to analyze the dynamic, decentralized behavior of coupled oscillators through such interdisciplinary lenses as mathematics, neuroscience, physics, and sociology. For his 2003 publication, Strogatz weds computational modeling to natural observation in producing a thoughtful narrative that both highlights his own contributions to the realm of chaos theory and also provokingly reflects on questions raised by colleagues’ research.

In his novel, Strogatz explains that limited sight and understanding have plagued scientists for decades, but by bringing a variety of disciplines together, the behaviors of emergent networks can be better understood (2). From a biological standpoint, the human brain appears limited in its capacity for omniscience, so there exists a great need to simplify systems by decomposing them into state-determined components. Scientific endeavors frequently lead to the examination of chemical properties and mathematical algorithms using scientific techniques that are fundamentally reductive in nature. However, is this current understanding of science flawed? Strogatz argues that many of the by-products from this approach, such as the laws of thermodynamics, do not account for the spontaneous order often observed in the universe (1). In fact, they seem to contradict its very existence altogether, despite obvious occurrences to the contrary.

Heart cells pulse rhythmically; fireflies flash in unison, and molecules reorient themselves when matter changes state. What, if anything, causes this synchrony? Up until now, science has struggled to explain these phenomena, but Strogatz proposes that the key to the mystery may lie in the underlying mathematics of nature. In theory, if everything could be reduced to differential equations, then the only remaining challenge would be to solve them. In reality, that is not so simple. Because order is traditionally measured in physical space and time, only linear equations are capable of handling more predictable, periodic phenomena like planetary orbits and pendulum swings (50). On the other hand, nonlinear occurrences are more common but harder to prove due to growing mathematical complexity that frequently causes small changes to produce big effects (aka “the butterfly effect”). In contemplating the order that emerges from an apparently “random” universe of chaos, it is intriguing to wonder how many non-random laws Mankind fully understands at this time. Surely, with all the phenomena that have yet to be explained, there is more to the picture than meets the eye.

With Sync, Strogatz’s intends to raise awareness of an emerging field to a public audience that may, otherwise, possess little experience with neuroscience and chaos theory, and he meets this goal by supplying generalized explanations of the mathematics and computer modeling that went into his initial research. Consequently, Sync is not a book that readers will find themselves struggling to get through in several sittings. Not only does the simplistic delivery of information make concepts accessible to the mathematically-disinclined, but this approach also helps to sustain interest from cover to cover, while allowing readers to glide seamlessly from one chapter to the next. Clear-cut readability and a conversational style of addressing the audience also make it a narrative that caters to readers who are new to the idea of chaotic synchrony and network analysis by substituting baffling equations with tangible, real-world examples that illustrate his points precisely.

Overall, the novel succeeds in offering audiences a smooth introduction to the world of organic spontaneity and emerging network analysis. In the end, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order provides an intriguing (if not over-generalized) perspective of the interdisciplinary reality of today’s connected age, and for this reason, I would recommend it to anyone interested in rediscovering the mysterious order in the world around them.


Strogatz, Steven. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. New York: Hyperion Books, 2003.