January 22, 2013

The Scientist: Prof. Steven Strogatz Studies Synchronization

Print More

Many of us have gone shopping with a coupon where a genuinely nice cashier, in an attempt to save us money, decided to apply sales tax after the coupon. We typically nod, smile and thank her for her kindness, but in reality, did she save us money? Multiplication’s commutative property says no.

According to Prof. Steven Strogatz, mathematics, it doesn’t matter which the cashier applies first: the sales tax or the coupon. Either order will produce the same final price.

That’s the type of everyday application of math which Strogatz uses in his new book, The Joy of X, to demonstrate how math can be fun. He aims to interest a wide audience, even those who have previously considered equations as public enemy number one.

In addition to making math more appealing to the general public, Strogatz has devoted much of his career to studying epiphenomenon synchronization, or the coordination of events which appear to be happening for no particular reason. His initial goal is to discover which systems tend to synchronize, but the main purpose of his research is to discover why synchronization happens.

Biological synchronization is when biological systems, which could be as small as cells in a heart or as big as the entire universe, fall into a sync, or rhythm. This includes examples such as when fish swim in schools to increase chances of survival against predators, or when birds fly in flocks to decrease air resistance.

Prof. Steven Strogatz, mathematics demonstrates how math can be fun in his new book The Joy of X.

One of Strogatz’s focuses includes the biological synchronization of fireflies in Southeast Asia. A single firefly produces only a small amount of light that’s barely visible from far away, but along the river banks of Southeast Asia, hundreds and even thousands of fireflies have synchronized to create what appears to be a massive flashing light that can be seen from a distance. Strogatz theorizes that, due to the dense mangrove tree population in the area, the synchronization of flashing aids female fireflies in finding mates.

Strogatz also studies synchronization within physics. In one of the United States’ military bases, there are several atomic clocks, all of which are averaged out to produce what is known as atomic time. Every clock in existence has at least a slight deviation from perfect time-keeping. Atomic clocks are devices that use the electromagnetic spectrum of atoms to maintain the most accurate time known.

Researchers have previously found that atomic clocks, when located in the same facility, begin synchronizing with one another. Synchronization is undesirable because it decreases the accuracy of atomic time. Strogatz realized that synchronization is an often-overlooked phenomenon, but understanding why it happens could lead to solutions to potentially stopping undesirable synchronization.

Strogatz theorizes that synchronization happens all around us. Whether it’s tiny fireflies producing lights together, or the most accurate clocks available synchronizing to one another –– thereby reducing their accuracy –– synchronization is unavoidable.

One way that Strogatz demonstrates synchronization is by using two small metronomes moving at different frequencies.  The two metronomes will not synchronize when sitting on a stationary surface, such as a table, but when placed on a moving platform created by a piece of cardboard on top of two rolling tubes, the metronomes will synchronize.

In addition to research and public outreach, Strogatz also values teaching, whether in the classroom or on Twitter where his tweets earned him a spot as one of Scientific American’s top scientists to follow. Over many years of experience as a renowned professor, he has developed many ideologies and methodologies to his teaching.The advice he offers to others is: “You shouldn’t give an answer until the student is ready to ask the question.”

Original Author: Amit Blumfield