Steven Strogatz discusses how things in nature tend to sync up all by themselves.

December 29, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

Stephen Strogatz is a mathematician who has studied synchrony in nature. Synchrony is the “spontaneous tendency of separate entities to act as a unit.” Strogatz finds synchrony “everywhere” in nature. He stresses that you don’t need to be smart to synchronize, nor do you need to have a brain or even be alive. I learned all of this by watching Strogatz giving a 20-minute talk on TED.  Strogatz plays some compelling bird and fish video during his talk.

Strogatz offers a several general principles regarding synchrony.  Sync is arguably the most pervasive drive in all of nature. Sync is the “deep tendency toward order in nature that opposes all we’ve been taught about entropy. Strogatz stresses that the law of entropy “is not wrong,” but there is a countervailing force in the universe: the tendency toward spontaneous order.

[Note: I previously wrote a somewhat detailed post regarding spontaneous order here, illustrated by the self-organized hexagonal pattern at Saturn’s north pole.]

The most impressive thing about synchrony in nature is that no choreographer is needed. Things “choreographer themselves.” He uses the examples of flocking birds and schooling fishes. No one is in charge in either case.  Flocking and schooling make it considerably less likely that you will end up being eaten by a predator. According to computer simulations that have been run in an attempt to understand this dramatic phenomenon, it looks like only four simple and local rules account for all of the emergent synchronous behavior of flocks and schools.

Strogatz offers some comments that run deep.  Although it looks as if each individual fish or bird is acting to cooperate, what’s really going on is a kind of selfish behavior. Each animal “is scattering away at random to save its scales or feathers. Out of the desire to save itself, each creature is following these rules and that leads to something that is safe for all of them, even though it looks like there thinking as a group. They’re not.”  Strogatz points out the impressive “waves” that one can see in a flock (or a school). One especially notable characteristic is the rapid transmission of waves through the flock (or school).

Strogatz gives examples (and video) regarding fireflies of Thailand and Borneo (although not the fireflies of North America, which do not synchronize their flashing). He points out that the pacemaker for the human heart is a “democracy of 10,000 cells” that work together, somehow. Even nonliving things synchronize. They “communicate” through mechanical means. One example is a laser. Strogatz also runs a simple demonstration with two metronomes (but here is a much more impressive demonstration).  Although this experiment was delightful to watch, it wasn’t surprising to me, as I’d previously read of the spontaneous synchronization of two independent clock pendulums when they hang from the same wall.

The prejudice of many people is that order can only occur with someone “in charge,” not spontaneously. Although Strogatz’ talk didn’t touch on this particular topic, it seems to be the common belief that order doesn’t come easily (and certainly not for free) that underlies the belief of many people that there must be Grand Orchestra Leader keeping things running in synchrony down here on earth.  Apparently not so.  The things down here on earth are quite proficient at “talking” with one another and syncing up.

If you want to know more, invest a measly 20-minutes in Strogatz’ fast-paced lecture on synchrony. If you decide to watch this lecture with other people, make sure you clap in synchrony at the end of the show.


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Category: Religion, Science, Videos

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Jungian synchronicity is a nice complement to this concept in nature.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Tim: You provoked me to look up Jung. Here is a description of Jung's concept of synchronicity:

    In The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Jung describes how, during his research into the phenomenon of the collective unconscious, he began to observe coincidences that were connected in such a meaningful way that their occurrence seemed to defy the calculations of probability. He provided numerous examples culled from his own psychiatric case-studies, many now legendary. . .

    Because Jung believed the phenomenon of synchronicity was primarily connected with psychic conditions, he felt that such couplings of inner (subjective) and outer (objective) reality evolved through the influence of the archetypes, patterns inherent in the human psyche and shared by all of mankind. These patterns, or "primordial images," as Jung sometimes refers to them, comprise man's collective unconscious, representing the dynamic source of all human confrontation with death, conflict, love, sex, rebirth and mystical experience. When an archetype is activated by an emotionally charged event (such as a tragedy), says Jung, other related events tend to draw near. In this way the archetypes become a doorway that provide us access to the experience of meaningful (and often insightful) coincidence.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    This physics simulation reminded me of the flocking models. I'm assuming that a few basic rules underlie a this realistic image. Further, patterns of flutter emerge with regularity. Mostly, it's fun to play with.

  4. Mentat says:

    Craig Reynolds did work on modelling flocking behaviours back in 1986, and the technique was first used in visual effects in 1992, to animate a swarm of bats in "Batman Returns". The same 3 rules that Strogatz mentioned were described by Reynolds.

  5. Nancy Simmons says:

    Thanks so much for this article and for putting the TED talk right here. I just watched a PBS doc. on "The Red Hat" Society. (Females over fifty joining up to do all kinds of things, from the mundane to the amazing, despite huge racial, cultural and political differences.) I immediately started thinking about emergence, sychronicity, and the fireflies in Thailand, and it gave me some hope for our world, which is sometimes hard for me to stir up.

    Again, thanks so much for doing this so well,

    Nancy Simmons

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