Friday, November 27, 2015

Thoughts on Strogatz's Sync: Educational & enjoyable read, uniquely placed between pop science & textbooks

I enjoyed Steven Strogatz's Sync very much. It is a rare book, more technical than a popular science piece yet written extremely well with the same craft of writing as a NY Times science piece -- unlike many textbooks -- and thus easy-to-read and imparting a lot of intuition and insight. Sadly, I suspect that the group that this type of book appeals to is fairly small -- that is, people who want something more technical than a pop science piece, yet do not really want to delve into the gory details in a textbook.

That said, I enjoyed the book very much and highly recommend it. Some of the more interesting things in the book are the core discussion of how coupled oscillators tend to synchronize and, in general, how one gets the phenomena of synchronization. This is described for simple two body systems such as earth and moon (tidal locking), two nearby pendulums or two electric generators in parallel. The discussion of synchronization naturally leads to the topic of chaos and strange attractors. I found the discussion of the Lyapunov time and the degree of predictability particularly intuitive and enjoyable.

There is also a lot in the book about non-physical applications, especially those related to biological systems. I found the discussion of sleep cycles interesting as I had never realized that our natural REM sleep cycle is synchronized to an internal clock that does not necessarily have to follow the 24-hour light/dark rhythm of the day. There also is a nice discussion of the history of how this was discovered and the practical ramification that it is often difficult for people to fall asleep right before their usual bedtime and sometimes after staying up very late they sleep much less than might be expected. Finally, there is a good overview of some of the interesting connected effects in social networks including the famous paper on small world networks, showing how having a few random links within a network dramatically cuts down the shortest path for communication.

Overall I found this a very enjoyable book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who falls in that niche between pop science and textbooks.

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Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life
by Steven H. Strogatz
This review on Amazon: