|ABOUT GO NETWORK | SIGN IN | FREE E-MAIL|
ABCNEWS ON TV
SEND PAGE TO
By Kenneth Chang
Feb. 23 In southeast Asia, male fireflies flash in unison, creating a beacon that can be seen miles away. Pendulum clocks hanging on the same wall will tend to swing together. Ten thousand cells in your heart discharge electrical signals simultaneously to tell your heart when to beat.
Though nature often celebrates the individual the alpha male wolf, the queen bee synchronicity is another theme that repeats again and again throughout the natural world, from flocks of birds to schools of fish even to the theaters and concert halls of Eastern Europe.
All Together Now
After a performance there, applause starts as tumultuous cacophony, then suddenly transforms into synchronized clapping, where hundreds or thousands of people spontaneously bring their hands together at exactly the same time and rate. Like the Radio City Rockettes kicking in unison, there is majestic splendor in synchronized clapping a collective, monolithic appreciation by the entire audience.
It is very pleasing, says Albert-László Barabási, a physics professor at the University of Notre Dame and a native of Romania, where such coordinated clapping is common. When everyone claps at the same time, you get a much stronger sound effect.
Synchronized clapping occurs commonly only in some parts of the world, indicating its only a local cultural phenomenon. But Barabási, and other researchers nonetheless wondered how that many people could without any outside direction or conscious thought coordinate their actions.
To study that question, Barabási and his colleagues recorded the applause after theater and opera performances in Hungary and Romania.
What they heard on the tape was individuals clapping fast at first, each at a different rate, usually between about four or five claps a second. Then they started slowing down to half that rate, adjusting their clapping to fit in with those around them.
After half a minute of clapping, Barabási says, suddenly everybody claps together.
Then It Falls Apart
While the synchronized clap provides instants of concentrated sound, ironically, the act of clapping together diminishes the overall noise, because everyone is clapping only half as fast. To raise the volume, the audience begins clapping faster and the synchrony falls apart. The pattern repeats.
It was just beautifully showing up seven or eight times after the theater performance, Barabási says.
The findings appear in Thursdays issue of the journal Nature.
While such rolling waves of synchronized clapping occur after most performances in Eastern Europe, theyre rare in the United States. Its a cultural phenomenon, Barabási hypothesizes.
You Will Clap Together
Indeed, the crowd overwhelms anyone who tries to clap to a different beat. We tried to disrupt it, Barabá says. It did not work. Youre not going to matter. You cant not do it. Its the psychology of the mob.
I think its interesting, comments Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University. While the behavior of Eastern European audiences by itself is of limited scientific interest, One line of motivation [for the research] is synchronization occurs throughout living things, he says. The mathematical descriptions are not all that different.
Thus the synchronized clapping of people in Romania tells you something about the fireflies, the clocks on the wall, and the beating cells of your heart.
Synchronization occurs throughout living things.
Steven Strogatz, Cornell University
W E B L I N K