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Is there an invisible tug-of-war behind bad hearts and power outages?

Posted June 18, 2013

Systems such as a beating heart or a power grid that depend on the synchronized movement of their parts could fall prey to an invisible and chaotic tug-of-war known as a “chimera.” Sharing its name with the fire-breathing, zoologically patchy creature of Greek mythology, a chimera state arises among identical, rhythmically moving components—known as oscillators—when a few of those parts spontaneously fall out of sync while the rest remain synchronized.

Whether chimera states exist in the real world has remained an imminent question since their discovery in theoretical studies 10 years ago. Now, researchers from Princeton University and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPIDS) report the first purely physical experimental evidence that chimera states can occur naturally and under a broad range of circumstances.

They report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that a surprisingly simple experiment demonstrated that chimera states naturally lay at the crossroads of two types of synchronized motion—in-phase and antiphase. Imagine two groups of pendulums that swing in the same direction at the same time—that’s in-phase. Under antiphase, the pendulums move at the same pace, but one group goes left as the other goes right.

Furthermore, the researchers found through mathematical models that the phenomenon can strike any process that relies on self-emergent synchronization, or the natural tendency of components to fall into the same rhythm. A range of things that swing, blink or pulsate share this quality, including clock pendulums, lightning bugs and heart cells.

Shashi Thutupalli, co-corresponding author on the paper and a postdoctoral research fellow in Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, explained that chimera states have recently been the topic of a lot of study and numerous computer models explore them. Nonetheless, there was a lack of experimental investigations into how they occur, and whether chimera states need specific conditions in order to crop up, Thutupalli said.

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