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Sync: the emerging science of spontaneous order – Steven Strogatz ****

Every now and then I read a book written by a real scientist that makes me think “Wow! I remember why I wanted to work in science when I was at university.” This is one of them. Like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time it is a fascinating insight into the mind of a working scientist and mathematician, and that makes it a treasure.
In essence, the question Sync explores is “why (and how) do things synchronize?” Why do fireflies in some parts of the world flash in unison? How do the cells that control the rate of the heart work together? Why did the millennium bridge go all wobbly? What is a Josephson junction, and what does it show us about synchronization? What is happening when we talk about six degrees of separation or a [Kevin] Bacon number?
One of the great things about the book is its diversity. At times you will be in the lab with the author, seeing how a fundamental new piece of research got started. At others you will be looking with him at something completely different, like the moment when the then graduate student Brian Josephson stood up to a Nobel laureate and challenged him to think differently. [Strogatz has to be warmly applauded for remembering that Josephson has a remarkable mind - most of the scientific community has written Josephson off, despite his Nobel prize, for daring to consider possibilities that most scientists dismiss without thinking about. Josephson may not be right, but the attitude of his peers has been appalling.]
It’s interesting to compare this book with another recent title, Critical Mass by Philip Ball. Although on a different topic, there is strong overlap between the two books, and each is covering a broad-spanning (if rather diffuse) concept that pulls together a wide range of fields. Frankly, this book is streets ahead of Ball’s. Firstly it is concise – Strogatz does not fall for the lure of bloat. His book is half the length of Ball’s and has more content. Secondly it’s more of a popular science book, even though Strogatz has less writing credentials. This is because you get a much better feel for people – not just the people directly involved with Strogatz – in Sync.
Sync comes within a whisker of our coveted 5 stars. There are only a couple of small reasons it doesn’t quite make it. One is the topic itself – like many cross-functional topics, it is difficult to pin down. It’s harder to see the point of it than many scientific subjects. It’s not that there aren’t applications, but it still feels very diffuse. The second reason is that, though Strogatz does a good job, it is obvious he isn’t a professional writer. His analogies are sometimes quite hard to follow and his explanations of the more complex aspects of the theory not entirely satisfying.
This isn’t to say Strogatz is a bad writer. He comes into his own, strangely, when he’s off the technical (of course, making the technical accessible is the hardest part of popular science writing). When he’s dealing with anecdotes or a non technical discussion like that on six degrees of separation he’s brilliant. Perhaps the most obvious parallel is with Richard Feynman’s combination of (occasionally impenetrable but always exciting) technical excellence and ability to tell a story – and that can’t be bad!

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Review by Brian Clegg


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