Review: Sync-- The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

Posted on Aug 25, 2003

Naturally, in a book this good, it only takes 31 pages to mention Knoxville. It turns out my hometown is the only other place (mentioned in this book at least) besides Southeast Asia where the naturally synchronizing fireflies reside. Starting with some foundation work done years ago into synchronization done 20 years ago, Strogatz quickly catches us up to speed with the current state of the science."

Here’s some of the topics that are on the back of the dust jacket, and the treatment they get from inside the dust jacket:"

  • 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 Pokemon
  • 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 braincells

You may think, “Hey, this sounds interesting!” But apparently the dust-jacket writers were just looking for the things they understood, because these topics average one or two pages of coverage apiece. The topics that get real coverage play just as well, though. You’ll find applications of sync in the power grid (and what seems certainly to be elements of what happened during the blackout), the human sleep cycle, chaotic systems, bridge building, lasers, and many others."

Some other subtexts that seemed interesting at the time:"

  • Strogatz points out just how prescient human ingenuity can be in several cases. Mendel postulation of genes before he even ran his pea experiments, Einstein declaring that there would be a laser 43 years before it actually happened, and others. A later review will make some counter-points, but I love reading about how smart some people are. Go genius!
  • Thomas Edison founded General Electric. That’s a fun fact for parties.
  • “Mystic” type stuff pokes its head around the corner a couple of times. This fella, who had the brains to advance some aspects of quantum physics a great deal (including winning a Nobel Prize at 33) is now studying telepathy, spoon-bending, etc. Some of the analogies he makes about chaotic systems and quantum cryptography instantly bring to mind similar analogies made in the Dancing Wu Li Masters, which grows in my estimation with each other book I read.

Overall, I don’t see that the book has a lot of weaknesses. I give it a 9.5/10 with some points taken off for not having a magic bit of explanation covered within. It has lots of neat tidbits and ideas, but no one idea really feels like “Wow, this changes how I look at humanity or the world. Or something. Dood.”