Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Sunday, March 2, 2014
We, the volunteers on Princeton's pedestrian/bicyclist advisory committee (PBAC), organize several public events each year.
These are meant to encourage bike usage and safe riding practices, and to foster a sense of community and solidarity among
those of us who prefer to get around town on two wheels.
To inaugurate the upcoming bike-riding season, and to kickoff Pi Day in a memorable and fun way, we have arranged to host
a social gathering and short ride called "Kuramoto Model (1,000 Fireflies)" on the night of March 14.
Participating bicyclists will make their way to Community Park South (380 Witherspoon) in time for an 8PM start to the organized
ride. They will be obliged to obey New Jersey law by riding bikes equipped with front and rear bicycle lights and reflectors. Bike
helmets will be mandatory for this event, which is sponsored by the municipality of Princeton, by Princeton University (Community
and Regional Affairs), and by Pi Day Princeton.
Starting at 7:30PM in the area next to the parking lot at CP South, between John and Race Streets, bicyclists who register for the
event will be issued with special blinking red tail lights. Helpers from PBAC will be on hand to help attach these lights to the rear of
bikes, helmets, or backpacks as appropriate. There will be enough light kits on hand to equip 159 - a number related to Pi - cyclist
The red tail lights are augmented by low-cost radio transceivers, and can instantly synchronize with one another, such that all lights will
eventually blink at the same rhythm. Participants in the event will be able to ride in a clockwise loop on the bike path surrounding
CP South playing fields for a distance of at least Pi (3.14) miles, while remaining in synchrony with all their neighboring riders, pedaling
and blinking in unison. Putting the weather in the back of your weather-fatigued mind for a brief moment, can you imagine how cool this
will be ? We purport to know enough about Einstein's temperament to know he would dig it.
Princeton will become the third community in the US to stage the "Kuramoto / Fireflies" event, which was conceived by Chicago-based
artist David Rueter. It was unveiled in 2012 at the Northern Spark dusk-to-dawn summer arts festival in Minneapolis with 1,000 bicyclists,
and again last September at the EdgeUP art festival in Chicago with 250 cyclists. According to Rueter, "the project aims to activate the
cooperation and unity of the urban social network, especially as it applies to the cycling community. The synchronization will highlight
cycling as a system with unique patterns and effects while transforming the system momentarily through a large-scale community ride /
performance piece. […] No leader is required - the group is entirely self-organizing. This kind of lateral self-organization is politically
significant in the context of the project: the social structures that make automobile travel possible are fundamentally hierarchical, and
in many ways the bicycle is a much more decentralized approach to transportation."
Princeton's 2014 incarnation of the "Fireflies" ride is possible thanks to the enthusiastic backing of Pi Day, a 3-day event celebrating the
the March 14 birthday of Albert Einstein, the renowned theoretical physicist who, among other accomplishments, got through life without ever
driving a car. Our intent is that the event will stimulate participants and their friends to learn about and contemplate the important scientific advances
made not only by Einstein, but by other mathematical and/or scientific luminaries who passed through Princeton during the twentieth century.
For example, Japanese physicist Yoshiki Kuramoto published his ingenious model of coupled oscillators in 1975, but Arthur Winfree, who obtained
his doctorate in biology at Princeton, had already made a theoretical breakthrough in understanding the phenomenon of collective synchronization.
Winfree's insights and results were eventually collected in "The Geometry of Biological Time" (1980), a classic of interdisciplinary science.
As summarized by Winfree's collaborator Steven Strogatz in his bestseller "Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and
Daily Life", "the tendency to synchronize is one of the most mysterious and pervasive drives in all of nature".
Of the many astonishing feats of synchrony in nature, one of the most widely known is the phenomenon whereby, in a small number of firefly
species, the individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns, dazzling human spectators. During a 2-week period in June, a desire to see this
awe-inspiring display leads tourists to congregate at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as described in this NYT article.
But as described in detail in "Sync" and elsewhere, collective synchrony can also emerge in non-living systems, and this is where Einstein helped
boost our understanding. In 1924 he received a letter from a then-unknown Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, requesting help getting a paper
translated and published. Einstein soon realized the importance and far-reaching implications of Bose's work, and predicted a new and exotic state
of matter which could come into being only at very low temperature, near absolute zero. In this phase of matter, eventually known as a Bose-Einstein
condensate, separate atoms or subatomic particles can coalesce into a single quantum mechanical entity, or "super atom". The story of Einstein
and Bose is related here by Yale physics professor A. Douglas Stone, who will be giving a talk at the public library at 6PM on Pi Day (March 14).
As Stone relates in a Q&A about his new book, "a very unusual concept in quantum theory is that fundamental particles, such as photons, are
'indistinguishable' in a technical sense. When many photons are bunched together it makes no sense to ask which is which. This changes their
physical properties in a very important way, and this insight is often attributed to the Indian physicist, S. N. Bose (hence the term “boson”).
In my view Einstein played a larger role in this advance than did Bose, although he always very generously gave Bose a great deal of credit."
So science/math and community-oriented bike enthusiasts are invited to join us, to come spin with us, in this Pi Day (Pi Night?) event to connect
with each other, and to connect with the spirit of scientific exploration. To pre-register and assure that a blinking light is reserved for you to use,