Fun Science: Synchrony

Have you ever wondered why fireflies flash at the same time ? Or how the heart contracts and relaxes? Why they had to shut down the Millennium Bridge in London for repairs? These are all questions related to synchrony. (See the following papers about these questions if you are interested in the mathematics: J Buck, 1988, Quar Rev Biol; Strogatz, 2000, Physica D; Strogatz et al, 2005, Nature; Michaels et al, 1987, Circulation Res.)

By synchrony, I am talking about the tendency of systems that periodically do something to align into patterns. This periodic action could be contracting (heart cells), chirping (crickets), firing (neurons), stepping (people walking), swinging (pendulums)… you get the idea. Synchrony can apply to the simplest or the most complicated interacting items, from transistors to crickets and neurons and people. The study requires only some kind of repetitive action.

How do all these systems synchronize? The elements communicate in some way. At a concert, thousands of people can clap together at the same beat because they hear each other. In the example below, 32 metronomes synchronize because the table is not fully rigid. Each metronome is slightly disturbed by the shaking in the table, and is slightly changed by it. As a dominant timing emerges, the metronomes synchronize. And each metronome retains its natural character– no oscillators stop or become greatly faster to achieve synchrony.

Synchrony isn’t always desirable. When the Millennium Bridge was opened, it was a new kind of bridge design. As thousands of people crossed it, it began to sway from side to side. Due to the slight swaying, people trying to maintain their balance began stepping with this rhythm, adding energy to this rhythm. This continued to the point where the bridge swung visibly. It was shut down, and dampening was added. The Millennium Bridge was similar to the famous Tacoma Narrows bridge, except that thousands of people had to act in unison to activate the resonant frequency. Synchrony is also believed to play a role in epilepsy. The theory is that a strong synchronous signal emerges, and this signal overwhelms the normal functions in the brain. So when we study synchrony, we wish to understand how it arises, and sometimes how to destroy it.

I study synchrony in electrochemical oscillators. Drop me a note or a comment if you have questions or thoughts.

Some more cool videos:

And a topic for future discussion, chaos

  • Chaotic double pendulum– amazingly, something as simple as a pendulum with two vertices exhibits some wild and chaotic behavior.

7 thoughts on “Fun Science: Synchrony

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