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Edge 115


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WHO CARES ABOUT FIREFLIES?: A TALK WITH STEVEN STROGATZ [5.12.03]
Introduction by Alan Alda

We see fantastic examples of synchrony in the natural world all around us. To give a few examples, there were persistent reports when the first Western travelers went to southeast Asia, back to the time of Sir Francis Drake in the 1500s, of spectacular scenes along riverbanks, where thousands upon thousands of fireflies in the trees would all light up and go off simultaneously. These kinds of reports kept coming back to the West, and were published in scientific journals, and people who hadn't seen it couldn't believe it. Scientists said that this is a case of human misperception, that we're seeing patterns that don't exist, or that it's an optical illusion. How could the fireflies, which are not very intelligent creatures, manage to coordinate their flashings in such a spectacular and vast way?

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Introduction by Alan Alda

Steve Strogatz has worked all his life studying something that some people thought didn’t exist while others thought was too obvious to mention.

It’s found in that subtle region—the haze on the horizon—that smart people, it seems, have always been intrigued by. He saw something there, and went and looked closer.

What drew him on was a pattern in Nature that showed, surprisingly, that an enormous number of things sync up spontaneously. His research covered a wide range of phenomena, from sleep patterns to heart rhythms to the synchronous pulse of Asian fireflies. And now, in his new book, Sync, he’s drawn all these strands (and many others) together in a way that has the shock of the new. Even though we may see the moon every night (perhaps not realizing it’s an example of sync) it’s hard not to be surprised at the number of things around us—and in us—that must (or must not) sync up for things to go right.

I’ve known Steve about ten years. We met when I called him up on the phone, wondering if he’d even take my call. I had read an article of his in Scientific American about coupled oscillators. From his first description of Huygens’ discovery that pendulum clocks would sync up if they could sense each other’s vibrations, I was fascinated, and I hoped he’d tell me more about it. He was surprisingly generous in the face of my hungry, naive curiosity and we’ve been friends ever since.

Steve has that quality, like Richard Feynman’s of not only wanting to make every complex thought clear to the average person, but, also like Feynman, of actually knowing how. When we were working on the Broadway play QED, by Peter Parnell, in which I played Feynman, it’s no surprise that we asked Steve to advise us on the physics in the piece.

Please let me introduce you to Steven Strogatz, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University: my pal, Steve.

Alan Alda


STEVEN STROGATZ is a professor in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics and the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University. He is the author of the best selling textbook Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos: With Applications to Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Engineering and the trade book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order.

His seminal research on human sleep and circadian rhythms, scroll waves, coupled oscillators, synchronous fireflies, Josephson junctions, and small-world networks has been featured in Nature, Science, Scientific American, the New York Times, US News and World Report, New Yorker, Discover, American Scientist, Science News, Newsweek, Die Zeit, and London's Daily Telegraph, and broadcast on BBC Radio, National Public Radio, CBS News, and numerous other mass media outlets.


Steven Strogatz's Edge Bio Page
Alan Alda's Edge Bio Page


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