When the incoherent claps of a crowd suddenly become a pulse, as everyone starts clapping in unison, who decided? Not you; not anyone. Crickets sing in synchrony; metronomes placed side by side sway into lockstep; some fireflies blink together in the dark. All across the United States, the power grid operates at 60 hertz, its innumerable tributaries of alternating current synchronizing of their own accord. Indeed, we live because of synchronization. Neurons in our brains fire in synchronous patterns to operate our bodies and minds, and pacemaker cells in our hearts sync up to generate the beat. Objects with rhythms naturally synchronize. Yet the phenomenon went entirely undocumented until 1665, when the Dutch physicist and inventor Christiaan Huygens spent a few days sick in bed. A pair of new pendulum clocks - a kind of timekeeping device that Huygens invented - hung side by side on the wall. Huygens noticed that the pendulums swung exactly in unison, always lurching toward each...
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