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Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order    by Steven Strogatz order for
by Steven Strogatz
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

Sync is the fascinating story of a developing science, with many possible applications. It is also the even more fascinating story of the scientists who agonized at its birth, sat up at night when it had bellyache, and suffered through all of its growing pains. Steven Strogatz is uniquely qualified to tell this tale. A professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University since 1994, where he teaches and researches chaos and complexity theory, he is one of the pioneers in the field, and knew and worked with many of the others who became involved.

For many years, travelers in South-East Asia told stories of having seen, stretching for miles along river banks, enormous congregations of fireflies - thousands of lights blinking on and off in unison, like an orchestrated light show. The stories were generally disbelieved (although the same phenomenon was seen in Africa by no less than Joy Adamson, and even in the U.S.) as no rational explanation seemed possible. However, as it turns out, this odd behavior of fireflies is just one of the few tractable instances of a complex, self organizing system, where millions of interactions occur simultaneously - when everyone changes the state of everyone else.

Difficult to understand as it may be, in fact the firefly problem,although it is on the leading edge of what we understand today, is an ideal starting point for learning how math can help us unravel the secrets of spontaneous order. This spontaneous order does not arise only with living organisms, though some interesting examples occur regularly in our own bodies and minds. Electrical power grids, traffic jams, riots and mass hysteria, even human consciousness may be a function of spontaneous order. It is significant how interest in the phenomenon has spread through many disparate scientific disciplines, even in the rarified atmosphere of modern quantum theory, where indeed some of the more esoteric interpretations of the math should feel right at home.

Strogatz discusses all this complex scientific theorizing with a rare intuitive grasp for the limitations of the non-technical reader, and an equally rare ability to make it all interesting. But he provides much more: he describes the effort of discovery, the dead ends, the false steps, and the triumphant validations, in the persons of the scientists who labored in the field, with wit and affection.

For all you SF fans reading this, one of his heroes was also yours; Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, whom he recalls riding his unicycle through the corridors of MIT, eating peanuts and smoking his cigar. I cannot resist repeating another anecdote. When Norbert and his family moved, his wife wrote out directions to his new home. He used the note as scrap paper for some calculations and threw it away. Norbert walked back to his old house, but when he arrived, realized he no longer lived there, and asked a little girl on the street if she knew where the Wieners had moved. She said, "Yes, Daddy, come with me."

Sync is one of the very few books dealing with advanced mathematical concepts that I can recommend unreservedly to the lay reader, even to those who usually have no great interest in scientific development. Read it for pure enjoyment, but spare a thought for what it might mean in the future.

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