Strogatz Makes Sense of Chaos in Plant Lecture

Dr. Steven Strogatz speaks in the Chapel.
Dr. Steven Strogatz speaks in the Chapel.
The annual James S. Plant Lecture series continued on September 20 with Dr. Steven H. Strogatz giving a talk on campus. Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, is a renowned physicist specializing in making sense of seemingly chaotic systems. Associate Professor of Mathematics Sally Cockburn described him in her introduction as a “mathematical missionary,” due to his multiple awards for teaching math and physics in plain English. His talk at Hamilton, titled “Getting in Sync,” focused on the nature of synchronization and what it means for our bodies, our politics, and our solar system.

Synchronization occurs all around us, Strogatz observed; it can be seen on every level from the subatomic to the cosmic. We rely on it to keep our hearts beating, as our pacemaker cells have to keep the same rhythm as surrounding cells. It is also the reason we only ever see one face of the moon—it rotates on its axis in sync with its rotation around Earth. It is so common, in fact, that scientists often discover a specific instance of it only after replicating the effect in a lab. “You do something beautiful and elegant,” Strogatz said, “only to find that nature has already done it.”

But synchronization is also present in places we might not think of as even being able to be synchronized. Synchronous systems often have the majority of the components clustered around one point or rhythm. However, there are sometimes a few outliers who just cannot quite seem to sync up, and they keep moving faster or slower than everything else in the system. Strogatz related this feature to politics: most people fall around the average in the political spectrum, but there are a few outliers who do not quite fall in with the rest of the crowd. Synchronization can be used to model complex systems such as these even when it appears there is no connection.

Strogatz used an example from nature to relate to another aspect of American politics. There are fireflies in Southeast Asia that flash on and off in unison for miles up and down rivers, as opposed to the disorganized jumble of flashing we are used to in upstate New York. How these insects coordinate so perfectly is still unknown, but it has been shown that there is no one leader that they follow and are instead all taking cues from every other firefly.

Strogatz likened this feature of synchronization to the Iraq War—because terrorists do not necessarily take cues from one leader, attempting to destroy the commanders could prove useless. Each terrorist cell would operate independently, taking cues from each other instead of falling out of sync without a leader. Strogatz’s models could affect policy decisions and wartime strategies against unconventional opponents such as insurgents and terrorists.

Throughout the talk, Strogatz had a strong message for undergraduate students. He pointed out that much of the research he was citing came from senior theses that broke new ground in the field of studying synchrony. He encouraged students to get creative with their research because it might be the crucial piece of information that could open up a new field. Cross-discipline study is particularly important, he said; one of the papers he cited was a physicist doing biology research.

Hamilton was lucky to host one of the preeminent and most prolific physicists of our time. Strogatz showed why synchronization is so important in every facet of our world, from our hearts and brains to planets in the far reaches of the galaxy. While we might not think about what exactly is involved, Dr. Strogatz is creating complex mathematical models to show not only what is involved, but how it happens and why it is so crucial.
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