Sync, by Steven Strogatz

Amazon link

I’ve been wanting to read this since first hearing about it. I took a class from Strogatz when I was at MIT, and he was a great lecturer that was way too smart so I figured his book would be interesting and well written.

I was reminded of Strogatz’s book recently when I read Six Degrees, by Duncan Watts. It turns out that Watts was a student of Strogatz. Small world. Since I really enjoyed reading Six Degrees, and am fascinated by the science of networks, I picked up Sync from the library.
Subtitled “The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order”, Strogatz is more interested in the science of synchronization than the science of networks. From fireflies blinking in concert, to the electrical pulses of the heart to superconductivity, Strogatz finds examples of synchronization everywhere in nature, and takes a crack at explaining how the same fundamental mathematical equations govern them all.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book very interesting. His explanations seemed fairly shallow to me. I know that he was writing for the general audience, but I feel like he could have delved into more detail on how the math generalized. He also suffered from trying to cover too large a breadth of material: a chapter on each subject gave only enough time for a brief overview, and since I studied science, I already knew most of what he was summarizing. Although I should note that the chapter on sleep cycles and circadian rhythms was pretty fascinating, mostly because any MIT alumnus has experimented all too much with different sleep patterns. And because I knew somebody who I think worked at the sleep lab that he mentions.

One of the other interesting speculations was that our brain waves synchronize to form consciousness. There is constant electrical activity in our head as neurons fire, but apparently (Strogatz only wrote a couple paragraphs about this) when a conscious thought forms, the signals all synchronize momentarily and then return to random firing. It’s a very neat idea. It reminds me of that flash of intuition when I make a connection between two previously unconnected areas of thought in my head. All of a sudden, it feels like my brain lights up as my thought structure puts a new connection in place. So that image of waves synchronizing makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. Unfortunately, it was covered almost in a throwaway fashion, so I’ll have to go hunting down the references (such as this one or this one or this one) (I haven’t read the links, but figured I might as well copy from Sync’s references before I returned it).

The place where Strogatz is most successful is where he personalizes the stories. Since he knows many of the people that he’s writing about, he’s able to share stories about how he met them, or anecdotes about how they did their work, which helps turn these scientists into real people. This shouldn’t have been surprising to me; the fondest memory I had of his class at MIT was his “Gauss was a prick” story.

I’m glad I got it from the library and didn’t pay for it. If one were looking for a book in this area, I’d recommend Six Degrees or The Tipping Point. as being more interesting. But I had to read it. I’ll get back to my other Amazon books now. Oh, and apologies for the delay in finishing books – I fell about a month behind in the Economist in December, and only now caught up. Too much reading material, too little time.

“way too smart”:
Strogatz’s tests were the kind of tests where if you saw the trick on how to do them, they took 5 minutes, but if you weren’t a genius like him, they took two hours, which really sucked when you only had an hour. The three question second test had a nice tripartite distribution of scores at 100, 66 and 33. I got a 70 or something. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

“Gauss was a prick”:
The class I took from Strogatz was complex analysis, which was a field basically invented by Karl Friedrich Gauss. In mathematics, it is standard to name equations after the first person to discover them. However, if they had done that in complex analysis, every equation would have been Gauss’s Law. So they settled on naming things for the first person to discover it after Gauss. The best part was that after Gauss would derive a new proof, he’d say, “Oh, that’s interesting”, call in his assistant, notarize it, date it, and stick it in a desk drawer without telling anybody. Twenty five years later, a young mathematician would figure out a new proof and send it off to Gauss to share it with the great man, hoping to gain his approval. Gauss would write back that he’d discovered it twenty five years ago, and crush the poor bastard. Hence, Strogatz said, “Gauss was a prick.”