Why Do Fireflies Flash in Unison?

Mathematician Steven Strogatz shares the excitement of discovery and how he’s used math to uncover the synchronization in nature. He also wrote a book about how things get in sync in nature, Sync!

One of the things about math that I love the most is its uncanny ability to reveal patterns in our everyday lives in nature and the world around us. There’s a secret universe that you can’t see with your eyes, and you can only see it if you know math. And I feel like those of us who do no math are left behind the curtain into this invisible, fantastically patterned, and beautiful world.

And within that world, there are connections between things that don’t seem connected, like how fireflies can start flashing in unison by the 1000s. You know, you have these enormous displays of trees full of really not very clever insects that somehow managed to organize themselves into this fantastic thing like the Rockettes kicking their legs; these are fireflies all flashing on and off in perfect time.

There are places in the world where fireflies don’t just flash randomly like we’re used to. They somehow flash together, but how can order come out of disorder? This is the big mystery of science, and it might be bigger than black holes.

And how they do it turns out to be a math problem, not a biology problem. But then you could say, what’s the point of that. Engineers have figured out how to use the work we did about fireflies getting in sync to make little electronic clocks turns out to be important in distributed computing and sensor networks. And this is a fantastic thing with math, that it’s transcendent.

The same patterns occur in fireflies and sleep cycles, and sensor networks. And a specialist in those subjects doesn’t know that the mathematicians realize it because mathematicians are the birds flying overhead. And they can see all these connections under our abstract nature.

Abstraction is tremendously powerful because it takes away all the details and lets you see the essential thing that provides connections, commonality, and patterns. That’s the great pleasure of math, and it’s the subject where hidden patterns are revealed.

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