The new science of synchrony is the latest “new new thing” (apologies to the redoubtable Michael Lewis ["Liars Poker"] for appropriating his great phrase) to hit science. First, there was chaos theory, back in the 70s; then came complexity. Now comes synchrony, the study of why schools of fish turn suddenly in unison, or birds wheel through the sky in formation, or crickets chirp in perfectly timed bursts.
It started with a mathematician named Steven Strogatz in 1992. He was studying fireflies and their flashing in unison. What interested him was not the mechanics of it, but that it happened at all. He published “Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order” earlier this year (2003), and, in a nod toward his muses, put fireflies on the cover.
Most intriguing is that synchronous behavior occurs in inanimate systems: lasers, electrical grids, quantum mechanics, flows of automobile traffic. In 1665, it was discovered that two clocks in the same room may synchronize their pendulum swings as they react to each other’s vibrations.
“Mindless things can synchronize by the millions,” says Strogatz. “It doesn’t take a mind, or even have to be alive. Simple laws could lead to groups being in sync. It’s counterintuitive, because the usual thinking was that things get more disordered over time.”
Of note: synchronous behavior appears suddenly, rather than developing over a long period of time. Strogatz sees cancer as one of numerous problems governed by the confluence of numerous individual events. These problems, he suggests, may be impervious to science’s most familiar method of analysis: looking at ever smaller units, what I call “divide and publish.”
Louis Jacobson’s excellent story on the subject, which appeared last month in the Washington Post, is worth reading.
Prediction: Strogatz gets a MacArthur award, if he hasn’t already.
Rupert Sheldrake, derided for many, many years for his focus on synchrony as the clue to a much greater mystery, in such books as “A New Science of Life,” was simply, like Leonardo in 1453 with his plans for a helicopter, too early.