Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

The Little Metronome That Wouldn't

Monday, May 20, 2013 - 02:03 PM

If this wasn't a science page, if this happened 3,000 years ago in, say, a Middle Eastern desert, I would call it a Miracle. But it's not. It's just a plain, ordinary moment of "wow!"

First, the beginner's version. A man takes a bunch of metronomes, sets them ticking in different ways, then — and this is the crucial part he lifts them collectively off the table, so their different motions now start to offset each other. And this happens:

But why? How does it work, you may be asking. I wondered too, and simply stated, what we have here is the transfer of momentum resulting in the alignment of motion. (Don't be afraid. Keep reading.)

Even more simply stated: As the metronomes tick back and forth, they affect the table, and because the table is designed to absorb the motion of the metronomes, the table itself starts to move. Now that the table is rocking ever so slightly, it begins to affect the metronomes on top. Metronomes that are moving with the table keep doing that. Metronomes not in sync with the table have their motions dampened, then countered, until they do it "the table's way." Eventually all the metronomes come into alignment.

That's what you saw in our small, chamber music version. Now we're going symphonic.

This time, we'll have a much bigger table with 32 brightly colored metronomes — a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of metronomes — all misaligned. It will take two minutes for most of them to fall into line. But there's one gloriously stubborn metronome in the second row on the extreme right that fights the mob and won't conform. In fact, it cleverly chooses to follow the beat but in exactly the wrong direction. I thought maybe it would be allowed to stay that way, a Minority Of One ... persisting against the tide, but ... well ... you'll see ...

They once made a movie about that stubborn metronome. It was called One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the metronome was played by Jack Nicholson.

Tags:

More in:

Comments [12]

deborah zeller from St. Louis, MO

This is what they need to do to our Congress!!!

Jun. 13 2013 09:54 AM
aaron

Does a metronome have a spring? This seems like it could be modeled as a second order differential equation. Dampened spring.

Jun. 08 2013 07:40 AM
Caroline Copley from Australia

An interesting example of chaotic behavior becoming non-random and ordered, one for Stuart Kaufmann!
I gather from above post that it depends on phase changes that are due to the base. Humpty Dumpty, all falls down if the base does.
With climate change, there is a phase change from a storage phase to a release phase- the base has shifted not crashed, due to human efforts!
The recent comments that the Oklahoma tornadoes "weren't climate change" because the "frequency" hasn't changed is an indication that the OVERALL cycle is still intact, so the "intensity" of oscillations may perhaps change, but the underlying base stability remains.
The biodiversity of the planet IS the base from which most lifeforms can be synchronized into some sort of workable biosphere in which the physical world is not entirely in control. Life modifies the planet for its own benefit, so that a stable base remains in the relationship between biodiversity and global physical processes (i.e. the biosphere) e.g. oxygen.
If the ACTUAL basis for the biosphere crashed, more intense oscillations would become wild swings with no fathomable way to discern major trends i.e. be chaotic, with no likelihood of return to stability. Humans seem to be intent on disruption of processes that are the basis for life.
Soil studies have shown a variable rather than consistent "levels" of carbon, but often these are done in agricultural areas which are without the stability the natural ecosystem provides. To an ecologist these systems are also almost by definition simplistic, immature in ecological terms, and lacking in the ecosystem complexity of surrounding natural bush, so are highly unlikely to have a "threshold" or base level of anything to which they regularly return from oscillations.
However intact natural bush has natural thresholds for not only nutrients such as C but many other factors as well! Thus natural ecosystems oscillate or are in flux around a base or steady-state (i.e. dynamic).
A simple system is more likely to have random processes without thresholds, and thus could be considered erratic. The difference between the simple system and the complex or ecologically intact one is the linkages, and thus the complexity of interactions which enable the whole thing to stay more or less intact for hundreds or thousands of years.
Some type of order and stability are found in complex ecological systems, but humans are doing their utmost to disrupt as many links as possible.
Humpty Dumpty. The natural tendency of all systems towards entropy can have opposing efforts made against that (randomness) outcome. For this planet that includes biotic complexity or biodiversity.
I am not so sure that climate change is the biggest threat. Climate is not the basis for life, it is life itself that harnesses the physical processes such as climate, soils and geology, which is the basis for biotic existence. The base is not the climate, it is the living organisms.

Jun. 06 2013 01:53 PM
Observer

Like marching soldiers.

Reminds me of an inebriated large mass of people clapping in a sports or pop/rock arena:
First its all out of sync and eventually it gets more aligned, but also increasingly louder and faster....haha

Jun. 03 2013 07:20 PM
dafree whitewolfe from planet earth

The deeper significance is perhaps what this tells us about ourselves and prejudice. All lockstep nationalistic cultures emerge from realitvely more chaotic tribal societies. I observe this weekly as a Director of Musical Liturgy. Congregations that sing together tend to become familial and transcend petty differences. In contrast, those that do not are viciously partisan tending toward schism. The observation is anecdotal. Interestingly, the non-conformist reminds me of martyrs who became saints from Socrates to Copernicus! The more things change the more they remain the same! We persecute the scientists who tell us the truth we do not want to hear: Catastrophic Climate Change is upon us, yet we are in denial! THE TIME TO TAKE THE EAR BUDS OUT WAS YESTERDAY!

Jun. 03 2013 11:55 AM
network

Heard something similar about early version of rip protocol. All routers were emiting information at the same time.

Jun. 02 2013 04:48 PM
rhschmitt from chicago

This phenomenon ("coupled oscillations") was first observed by Christiaan Huygens in 1665. He called it "an odd kind of sympathy."

May. 30 2013 05:11 PM
Joe Clark from Toronto

Motion is damped, not dampened. Motion can’t get wet. “Damped” is the word you want, not “dampened.”

May. 29 2013 02:41 PM
mrG from Canada

this same effect occurs with acoustic-music musicians, for example with the violins of the orchestra or with the reeds of a saxophone section, when playing in close harmony or unison, the vibrations lock-step producing a wave-power dynamic that greatly enhances the sound. Unfortunately in modern times we tend to place a transducer on everything, or mic each individually into a mixing board (or worse, multitrack record!) thereby destroying this power-function phenomenon. Audio production technologies attempt to compensate by enhancing the signal, but you cannot replace the lost spacial phase-lock information.

May. 27 2013 11:17 AM
Hyoscine

I guess this the effect that meant the Millenium Bridge in London had to be dampened?

May. 23 2013 10:11 PM
Robin from Kerr Lake, NC

Just watched this with my engineer husband. He wasn't surprised at the result when he saw that the base was able to move left and right. Some of the metronomes, even after they synced, had a problem with phase shifting and didn't stay perfect. But really cool to watch.

May. 23 2013 01:00 PM
johnny from New York

Wow! Neat! I remember sometimes sitting behind cars waiting for the light to change and I would always get really excited when our blinkers would synch up, even for like five seconds... One question though, are the metronomes all set to the same tempo initially and then they break that tempo to conform to the table? I notice in the 32-piece iteration that a few seem ot be going slower, so I'm just curious. But thanks for sharing this!

May. 22 2013 01:19 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by

Feeds