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In his book Sync , Cornell's Steven Strogatz writes compelling history of a scientific revolution long in the making

Cornell University mathematician Steven Strogatz views the human mind as tending to see order as the work of intelligence. The poet Robert Frost, upon encountering the eerie tableau of a white spider on a white flower devouring a white moth, imagined that a sinister hand had arranged them.

Perhaps, says Strogatz, this is why scientists -- always on guard against the seduction of a mystical explanation -- have sometimes neglected to find order in the universe, even where it is powerfully present.

He presents two examples:

  • In 1917, a letter to the journal Science described the phenomenon of fireflies apparently blinking on and off together in unison, but the writer dismissed it as the "twitching" of his eyelids.
  • In the 1950s, biochemist Boris Belousov created a strange fluid that pulsated with regular color changes, oscillating from yellow to clear and back again like a liquid metronome. Belousov's colleagues believed he was delusional, and no journal would publish his discovery.

But science, which has long considered order and synchrony the exception rather than the rule in a chaotic universe, is beginning to come around. In his new book, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (Hyperion, 2003), Strogatz, who is professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, describes the new science that is making sense of the synchronal flashing of fireflies and Belousov's discovery of the oscillating chemical reaction.

Synchrony, says Strogatz, shows up in the most unlikely of places: from satellite orbits to whizzing electrons, from the chirping of crickets to the tendency (once dismissed by science as urban folklore) of women who live in close quarters or who spend a lot of time together to menstruate around the same time of the month.

Order is all around us, and scientists in diverse disciplines are constantly uncovering new examples of it. But Strogatz and his colleagues make a far more extraordinary claim: Order is not

just possible, it is inevitable. In 1989 Strogatz, along with Boston College mathematician Rennie Mirollo, proved mathematically that any system of "coupled oscillators" -- that is, entities capable of responding to each other's signals, be they crickets, electrons or celestial bodies -- will spontaneously self-organize.

Sync is a lay person's handbook to the difficult science of synchrony, using everyday metaphors to capture the flavor of arcane mathematical proofs and scientific arguments. But it is also a compelling history of a scientific revolution long in the making.

The heroes of the revolution span centuries and continents. They are a motley crew, hailing from physics, genetics, psychology, chemistry, entomology, engineering, computer science and mathematics. Many, like Strogatz's mentor, University of Arizona mathematical biologist Art Winfree, operated at the fringes of their disciplines; others, like the brilliant and notoriously peculiar mathematician Paul Erdös, are at the fringes of society. Often they have worked in isolation from one another, unaware that independently they were laying the foundation for a science that only now is beginning to emerge as a discipline in its own right.

Strogatz gives a frank and often personal account of the uncertain, thrilling first steps of a new science -- sometimes erupting in unexpected discovery, sometimes toiling in seemingly endless frustration. The magazine New Scientist hails Strogatz as "a gifted and inspiring communicator whose book, Sync , offers a real sense of what it's like to be at the beginning of Something Big." And the April issue of Popular Science calls Sync "the most exciting new book of the spring."

Faced with mysterious and unexpected harmonies, the natural human response is awe and wonder -- the kind of wonder, Strogatz says, that is the inspiration and the reward for practicing science. He writes, "The spectacle of sync strikes a chord in us, somewhere deep in our souls. It's a wonderful and terrifying thing."

Strogatz also is the author of a textbook on nonlinear dynamics and chaos. He has published numerous articles in scientific journals, magazines and newspapers, including a March 4 op-ed page tribute to physicist Enrico Fermi in The New York Times . In the article he relates how in 1953 Fermi and his colleagues invented the concept of the "computer experiment." Fermi loved the result, referring to it affectionately as a "little discovery," wrote Strogatz. "He had never guessed that nonlinear systems could harbor such a penchant for order."

In New York City on Tuesday, March 25, Strogatz will hold a public conversation about Sync with actor Alan Alda at 8:15pm in Buttenweiser Hall, the 92nd St. Y.

This review was prepared by Lissa Harris, a Cornell graduate student and Cornell News Service science-writing intern.


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