Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

by Steven Strogatz

(Theia imprint of Hyperion, $24.95, 352 pages, April 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In unison, fireflies blink.
In your head, neurons fire, so you think.
Circadian rhythms,
Coherent emissions,
All follow the dictates of sync.

In the perceptive and readable Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order, Cornell University Applied Mathematics Professor Steven Strogatz draws connections among phenomena as varied as gaps in the asteroid belt, the coherence of laser light, the coordination of synapses in brains or nerve cells in beating hearts, and the rhythmic unison flashing of Malaysian fireflies.

"On the surface, these phenomena might seem unrelated,...." he writes. "But at a deeper level, there is a connection, one that transcends the details of any particular mechanism.... All the examples are variations on the same mathematical theme: self-organization, the spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos."

Dr. Strogatz brings to bear a skill with words and storytelling to match his expertise in complexity and chaos theory. He uses understandable analogies rather than mathematical formulations, and the book is rife with personal anecdotes and tales of scientists whose unique perspective enabled them to discover underlying principles of synchrony or spontaneous order in living or nonliving systems.

Though rejecting Carl Jung's notion of "synchronicity" on scientific grounds, Dr. Strogatz admits "it's fun to believe" that "meaningful coincidences in our lives occur more often than one could explain by chance alone." After all, his own pursuit of Sync began in 1981 with a chance encounter during a year on a post-graduate scholarship in Cambridge, England. Browsing a bookstore on a "dismal day," The Geometry of Biological Time caught his attention because its title was uncannily similar to his senior thesis on the geometry of DNA.

"[T]his was the work of an unusual scientist," he writes. "No, not just unusual, Arthur T. Winfree was breaking all the rules. Above all, he was playful." The book was filled with quirky elements: data on menstrual cycles from Dr. Winfree's own mother, puns in chapter titles, personal stories. Most important, Winfree's credentials were strong and his "synthesis was brilliant and utterly original."

Steven Strogatz was compelled to write the author at Purdue University, asking for advice about programs where he might study mathematical biology. The professor replied with a two-page letter, full of generous advice and suggesting that the student keep in touch.

Might there be a summer job, the eager young Strogatz responded. The professor wrote back "five minutes after receiving yours" with an offer, signed "Impulsively, Art Winfree." Steven Strogatz had a mentor, and he would soon have an enduring friendship that continued until Winfree's death in November 2002.

Though not as scholarly in approach as the book Dr. Strogatz stumbled on in Cambridge, Sync builds on his mentor's example. It is an appealing synthesis, with idiosyncrasies that will charm readers whatever their mathematical inclinations. Perhaps a recent college graduate will stumble upon it and write the author an enthusiastic letter, and perhaps that student will receive a response of generous proportions worthy of Art Winfree.

That might not be synchronicity, but it would be a fitting beginning to another story.

Marching to the beat of a different drummer, physicist Fred Bortz has become a book critic and author of children's science books.