This book is about how oscillating systems can spontaneously synchronize. That sounds abstruse, difficult and rather boring. Strogatz makes it exciting. He writes about a wide range of topics, explaining any necessary maths carefully and without equations, and spices his stories up by writing about the often eccentric mathematicians and scientists with whom he has worked, from the father of Cybernetics who became so obsessed with a particular graph that he promoted it even after he had discovered that the evidence for it had been mistaken to the Nobel-prize winning physicist who now studies telepathy. I loved the story about when he was having a meal with Alan Alda, the instantly recognizable MASH star, in the MIT canteen and a young student came up and asked them whether he was Professor Strogatz because he just had to say how much he loved his book. They were talking about fads and tipping points and Strogatz mentions that the latest fads in science are all c-words: cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos and complexity. He thinks sync is behind them all!
This book is so well written that I understood about Bose-Einstein condensates, quantum tunnelling and strange attractors. That is impressive.
But I also learned about sleep and insomnia and phase changes and tipping points and fads and raster plots and incoherence and small world networks and cascades and brain waves and epilepsy and pendulums and power grids and Zhabotinsky soup and the Josephson Effect and SQUIDs and rioting and foot and mouth.
Other great books in this area include:
- Six degrees about small world networks by Duncan Watts who worked with Steven Strogatz
- At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman about fitness landscapes
- How Nature Works by Per Bak about sandpiles and self organized criticality; an excellent explanation of complexity science
- Deep Simplicity by John Gribbin which is a brilliant introduction to this whole field
- Smart swarm by Peter Miller
- The Information by James Gleick although his Chaos (not reviewed on this blog) is perhaps better
Other books not reviewed on this blog on this topic include:
- The Wisdom of Crowds
- Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell about fads
- Ubiquity which is brilliant about fractals and power laws
- Critical mass by Philip Ball which is a brilliant explanation about phase changes
Very readable and very important. September 2015; 289 pages