Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature and Daily Life by Stephen Strogatz

  1. Strogatz describes the universality of sync in nature, human biology, social networks, etc. and how it might come to be. “For reasons I wish I understood, the spectacle of sync strikes a chord in us, somewhere deep in our souls. It’s a wonderful and terrifying thing. Unlike many other phenomena, the witnessing of it touches people at a primal level. Maybe we instinctively realize that if we ever find the source of spontaneous order, we will have discovered the secret of the universe.”
Key Takeaways
  1. At the heart of the universe is a steady, insistent beat – the sound of cycles in sync. It pervades nature at every scale and spontaneously, almost as if nature has an eerie yearning for order
  2. Spontaneous order baffles scientists as thermodynamics seems to predict the opposite – greater disorder and entropy rather than order
  3. Synchrony – explaining order in time. We interpret persistent sync as a sign of intelligence, planning and choreography and it gives humans intrinsic happiness to witness and be a part of something in sync
  4. Chaos – seemingly random, unpredictable behavior governed by non-random, determinate laws. Occupies an unfamiliar middle ground between order and disorder. Looks erratic superficially, yet it contains cryptic patterns and is governed by rigid rules. It’s predictable in the short run but unpredictable in the long run. And it never repeats itself: it’s behavior is non-periodic
    1. Linear = whole is equal to sum of the parts
    2. Non-linear = whole is greater than the sum of the parts
    3. Chaotic systems can sync! No rhythmic it’s (periodic cycles) and scrambling communication lines is one example
    4. Tends to exhibit self-organized criticality which leads to cascade effects as increasing pressure builds up and overcomes a threshold (earthquakes)
  5. Small world networks – most networks resemble each other in design with most everyone connected by a short chain of intermediaries with hubs having the most connections
    1. Small world networks are ubiquitous in nature, technology, social interactions, etc. They are resilient, robust, reliable, efficient, effective, cheap. Nature has selected for it
    2. At an anatomical level – the level of pure, abstract connectivity – we seem to have stumbled upon a universal pattern of complexity. Disparate networks show the same three tendencies: short chains, high clustering, and scale-free link distributions. The coincidences are eerie, and baffling to interpret 
  6. Structure always affects function. The structure of social networks affects the spread of information and disease; the structure of power grids affects the stability of power transmission. The same must be true for species in an ecosystem. The layout of the web must profoundly shape it’s dynamics
    1. Average path length (degree of separation) and clustering (how big, how incestuous) are two important factors
    2. Small-world networks are small networks and highly clustered, scale-free link distributions (brain, power grid, social networks)
  7. Phase transitions (tipping points) – “If the network is too sparsely connected, it fragments into tiny islands and cascades can’t spread beyond any of them. At a higher, critical level of connectivity – the first tipping point – the islands abruptly link together into a giant mesh and global cascades become possible. An initial seed can now trigger an epidemic of change that ultimately infects much of the population. With further connectivity, the cascades at first become even larger and more likely, as one might expect, but then – paradoxically – they become larger yet rarer, suddenly vanishing when the network exceeds a critical density of connections. This second tipping point arises because of a dilution effect: when a node has too many neighbors, each of them has too little influence to trigger a toppling of its own. The more neighbors there are, the less impact any one of them has in a fractional sense. Just before this second tipping point, the outcome is extremely unpredictable in much the same way real fads are. Seems highly stable and resistant to outside disturbances but then another fad comes along, seemingly indistinguishable from the first, yet this one triggers a massive cascade. In other words, near this second tipping point, fads are rare but gigantic when they do occur. A subset of connected nodes in the network, called the vulnerable cluster, shapes how fads percolate through the rest of the structure. The vulnerable cluster in humans are “early adopters.” Most people really in the “early and late majority” and not the vulnerable cluster but because the network is so densely connected near the second tipping point, a spark that happens to ignite the vulnerable cluster is able to create enough momentum to detonate nearly everyone else.”
  8. Nature uses every means to allow oscillators to communicate which leads to sync. Oscillators when they freeze into sync, line up in time, not space
  9. Fireflies self-organize with no conductor or intelligence – internal metronome and then adjust based on other firefly’s oscillators
  10. Even lifeless things can synchronize pulses and communicate. Pendulums sync through minute vibrations of the medium
    1. Inanimate sync stems from deepest laws of math and physics
    2. Lasers, power grids, pendulums, moon/earth, asteroids/planets, electrons all examples
  11. Poincare is considered the father of chaos theory
  12. Sync almost always occurs regardless of the number of oscillators or how it started
  13. In any population, oscillators must be somewhat similar or no sync occurs
  14. Great geniuses often have a vision for how the world should work, strip it to its essence and then search until they find it
  15. Human biological clock is like an enormous orchestra with the circadian pacemaker acting as the conductor. Sync at cellular level, sync between various organs and sync between our bodies and the world around us (entrainment)
  16. Without external cues, circadian rhythm a little longer than 24 hours and body temperature varies accordingly
    1. Nearly everyone desires a nap after being awake between 9-10 hours
    2. High alertness correlated with high body temperature
    3. 3-5am trough of circadian rhythm and body temperature
    4. REM tied to body temperature and not sleep (early morning has most REM)
    5. Many disparate rhythms controlled by same biological clock, the circadian pacemaker
    6. People are the least alert around 5am and between 1-4pm
  17. Serendipitous discoveries are always made by people who are focused and alert yet calm and relaxed. They’re searching for something but just happen to find something else
  18. Downside of sync is the domino effect of failure – becomes a vicious cycle which reinforces itself
  19. Accurate time allows for precise positioning (GPS relies on atomic clocks)
  20. Super conductivity is a type of perpetual motion machine which doesn’t defy thermodynamics due to electrons ability to pair up and sync
  21. Bose-Einstein condensate – near absolute zero, bosons will intermingle and act as one (quantum sympathy) and merge into one “super atom” and “sing in unison”
    1. Lasers are an example of technology relying on this principle
    2. Electrons are fermions (recluse) but once they pair, they become bosonic (gregarious)
  22. Fractions of a degree make all the difference in phase transitions (water freezing, electrons lining up for super conductivity)
  23. There is beauty and wonder in recognizing hidden unity
  24. A dumb rule in a smart architecture can achieve world-class results
    1. Importance of structuring properly aligned habits, incentives, environment, thoughts, actions, etc.
  25. Power laws naturally arise from network growth (Geiger Scale)
  26. People are terrible at estimating probabilities of rare events
  27. Evidence that insights occur when different parts of the brain sync. Some guess that thinking and consciousness is a byproduct of sync
What I got out of it
  1. Synchrony can be found universally from lasers to electrons to human biological clocks to pendulums. The sync of inanimate objects is an appearance of some of the deepest laws of math and physics at work. Small world networks, phase transitions, superconductivity. Structure always affects function – before trying to change behavior, look at the environment in which people are in and try to change that first