Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

Reviewed on , book by Steven H. Strogatz

I found this book fairly fascinating. Strogatz has been in applied mathematics for decades, with special interest in quantum physics and biology. The former I skipped many chapters on (they were incredibly abstract and hard to understand, and it’s not something I have a special interest in), but the latter was fascinating. The chapters are about how fireflies sync, crickets sync their chirping, the heart’s pacemaker syncs all the cells, and many other biological processes that sync with little information passing between the individual actors. While this is the name of the book, the book is largely an autobiography on a scientific journey spanning many decades. Strogatz describes to us the process of writing a paper, the frustrating lows, and the powerful sparks that strike at unlikely moments, in conversations with co-workers, or at home. One of the most influential papers Strogatz has co-written, is that of small-world networks. This relates to sync, and essentially it describes the power of graphs that are highly clustered with a couple of random connections to other tight clusters. For example, you are tightly connected to your friends, and their friends. That’s a tight cluster. But that random person you met in Thailand 4 years ago and still keep in touch with is a random bridge to another tight cluster. This is what causes us to only be few links away from most people. When Strogatz was thinking about this problem, he realized how common these “small-world networks” were everywhere in biology, and how effective they are at getting tasks done.

In general, I walk away with 3 big insights: (1) how academic work gets done, (2) the fascinating process of sync between many small entities, and (3) small-world networks, and the vocabulary about “density” and the power of just a few random bridges. While I enjoyed the book overall, I ended up skimming and skipping a fair bit of things that I just didn’t find particularly interesting.