home > archive > 2003 > this article
Studying the heartbeat of the universe
By Steven Martinovich
A casual observer of the universe would tend to believe that we are surrounded by chaos. From the continuing turmoil on planet Earth to the spectacular ages-old dance of stars and planets, colliding and collapsing seemingly at random, one would be tempted to believe that there is little real order. A closer look though reveals what scientist and mathematician Steven Strogatz refers to as the "steady, insistent beat" at the heart of the universe, the sound of "cycles in sync."
In Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, Strogatz argues that our lives are ruled by synchrony, from the cells in our bodies to the behavior of stock traders on Wall Street. Despite that, however, the study of synchrony is still in its infancy. The sync of inanimate objects was first observed by Christian Huygens in 1665 and yet the field was barely explored for centuries. At the heart of sync is a mathematics that is just now only being slowly piece together by people like Strogatz.
"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," writes Strogatz
The primary puzzle in the study of sync is how systems organize themselves, from the basic to the extraordinarily complex. A real world example of self-organizing systems are fireflies. For decades travelers to South-East Asia have reported gatherings of fireflies stretching along riverbanks for miles, all their lights incredibly blinking on and off in unison. Explaining how thousands of autonomous beings, each interacting with each other, coordinate such a behavior promises a glimpse at the very heartbeat of everything.
Nor is spontaneous order simply seen in nature. As Strogatz points out, many of the systems that human beings have created reflect an unplanned order, such as the interlocking web of electrical power grids. Even traffic jams, Strogatz illustrates at one point, are a function of synchrony though that might be small comfort to you the next time you're trapped in one. Synchrony seems to lie in the heart of everything.
While Strogatz does a remarkable job illustrating the science behind synchrony without clogging Sync with dense mathematics, he surprisingly ignores for the most part the philosophical ramifications of synchrony. Although scientists have only relatively recently begun to delve deep into how order manifests itself over time, philosophers -- secular and otherwise -- have grappled with these questions for centuries. Religious thinkers, for example, have long pointed to synchrony in the universe as proof of a higher power. Along with the sense of wonder that Sync gives us about order, it could have also served to introduce the reader to some deeper questions to consider.
Despite that failing, Sync is an fascinating look at a scientific field that grows more interesting by the day. As one of the pioneers in its study, Strogatz is well-placed to report on the science and the people behind it. Few books on such a complex topic can claim to be easily read and appreciated by the layperson but Sync manages exactly that.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Steven Strogatz's Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order at Amazon.com
only $17.47 (30% off)
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2018, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.