Scientists wield sophisticated new tools as they finally approach some answers to the basic question of how order arises from chaos.
A key figure in the field, Strogatz (Applied Mathematics/Cornell) begins with fireflies, which in several parts of the world synchronize the periods of their blinking. Mathematicians conjectured that this phenomenon was similar to that of runners on a circular track, who tend to bunch up unless their abilities are widely divergent, but it seemed a mere curiosity until other instances of biological synchrony came to light, notably in brain waves and the regulation of heartbeats by specialized cells. Perhaps the most interesting section concerns our circadian rhythms; it explains why accidents cluster at certain times of the day and why the afternoon siesta is common to so many cultures. Other examples of synchrony from daily life include traffic jams and the “wave” performed by stadium crowds. Even the ways in which a crowd degenerates into a riot or a fad sweeps across an entire society obey the same laws as other periodic phenomena, though the details remain obscure. On a wider scale, such quantum phenomena as superconductivity and the rare Bose-Einstein condensates are examples of synchrony, as are the tidal resonances that force the moon to rotate with the same face always toward the Earth. Strogatz recounts the history of his discipline, reaching back as far as the Enlightenment but concentrating primarily on the last 40 years. He highlights chaos theory, the generation of spiral waves in chemical “soup,” and the widely known “six degrees of separation” problem, among other topics, and provides engaging portraits of many of the new field’s specialists, a large number of whom seem to be former students or colleagues.
A highly accessible survey.