Christian Long

Steven Strogatz: Sync

In TED Talks on April 23, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Reflection by TREVOR A.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Steven Strogatz:  Sync

Steven first comes on stage posing the question, “How is sync connected to happiness?”, making the crowd wonder as he adds in, “for some reason, we take pleasure in synchronizing.” He reminds us that many people find joy in doing things with other people as opposed to by themselves, and tries to come up with an explanation of this.

For the next twenty minutes, he thoroughly explains his answer.

He starts off by talking about how creatures and other things tend to synchronize and act as a unit without taking orders to. He poses the question of what the minimum requirements for spontaneous synchronization are. Inquiring to the audience, “Do you need to be as smart as you are? Do you even need a brain to synchronize? Do you need to be alive?”

After hearing this, my quick response led me directly to the answer “yes”. I mean, how would spontaneous synchronization even be possible without being alive, or without having a brain to enable thought?

But he manages to grab my attention again after he confidently states that even inanimate objects synchronize, and that sync is “if not one of the most, perhaps the most pervasive drive in nature.” He tells how synchronizing “extends from the subatomic scale to the farthest reaches of the cosmos”, and that it is a “deep tendency toward order in nature that opposes what we’ve all been taught about entropy.” Although he believes that the law of entropy is not wrong, he also states that he believes that there is a “countervailing force in the universe” that opposes the law.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Right?

He shows that schools of fish and flocks of birds always “swarm” by a certain simple set of rules:

1. All individuals in the swarm are only aware of those nearest to them.
2. All individuals tend to line up.
3. All individuals of a swarm are attracted to one another, but try to keep a small distance apart.

He explains how when these rules are applied, you begin to see swarms, schools, and flocks almost automatically. But then offers a fourth rule:

4. When a predator is coming, get out of the way.

He argues that this is all a sign of natural, Darwinian behaviour, and that except for a creature’s own desire to save itself, it will follow this set of rules. He offers some advantages of being in a swarm, the most of which involves the fact that your chances of being the “unlucky one” in a large swarm are much lower than that of being in a smaller group.

Up until this point, Strogatz has been demonstrating all of this with a computer model of a swarm, which was designed by his friend at Oxford, that shows the behaviour of a swarm and how it functions during an attack. His next move is taking the talk about synchronization, and applying it to real-life, and shows an example of a broken down video of how some things, in this case, fireflies, communicate in sync with each other.

But although synchronizing is mostly advantageous, he also explains how sometimes, synchronization isn’t necessarily a good thing, such as in the case of epilepsy, a medical disorder of the brain, where the tendency toward order isn’t the best idea. He gives the example of lighting to use as a buttress for his argument that life isn’t necessary for synchronization. He points out how the lighting above him on the TED stage is incoherent, and is a mixture of many different colors and frequencies, where as that of a laser involves all the atoms pulsating in unison, resulting in a single color and frequency.

His first stage test of inanimate objects synchronizing involves two water bottles, two metronomes, and a book. As he winds up the metronomes, he shows the audience how the metronomes are both on the same settings, and should work together in sync with one another, but also states that they will not remain in synchrony with each other, and their rhythms will slowly drift apart because their frequencies aren’t exactly the same. Sure enough, the metronomes slowly go into and out of sync with one another.

Steven explains that the reason why they can’t synchronize is because they can’t communicate, but argues that they are able to do so through mechanical forces. He then creates what he calls a “moving platform” (a book setup on top of the two water bottles), and places the two metronomes on top of his rig at the same time. Surprisingly, even after starting the two metronomes out of sync, the swaying of the platform forces them into synchrony with each other, and the two metronomes are almost perfectly in synchronizing harmony.

He ends his talk by asking the audience to try to go out and observe and enjoy all of the synchrony in nature around us. I know I will.


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