Skip to main content

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!
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…