Author: Brooke Gladstone, Host & Anchor

March 11, 2000
Length 452 wordsp. p. While American audiences might whistle, hoot or flick their lighters after a particularly thrilling performance, audiences in some parts of the world express their enthusiasm by synchronizing their clapping.p. (Soundbite of synchronized clapping)p. GLADSTONE: Joining us to explain this phenomenon is Professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi from the Physics Department of the University of Notre Dame. He studied this phenomenon along with colleagues in Romania and Hungary, and their research was recently published in the scientific journal Nature.p. Professor Barabasi, thanks for speaking with us.p. Professor ALBERT-LASZLO BARABASI (University of Notre Dame): Sure. It’s a pleasure.p. GLADSTONE: Well, this is fascinating. What is going on there?p. Prof. BARABASI: Well, first of all, you’ve got a bunch of people who are very enthusiastic about a certain performance they’ve just seen, so they come out and they start clapping very, very fast. But then, at a certain moment, they always slow down and they start clapping in phase.p. GLADSTONE: This is sort of like the wave you see during baseball games in the United States.p. Prof. BARABASI: No, no. It may sound like that, but it’s a very different phenomenon, because the group of people decide, ’We’re going to do the wave.’ Here in the audience, there is nobody who decides that ‘OK, we will start clapping together.’ It appears spontaneously in the system.p. GLADSTONE: But isn’t this a sort of game that the audience members play with each other?p. Prof. BARABASI: I don’t think that they would call it as a game, because they are not aware that they are playing a game. What we find in our research is that there’s a mathematical condition for the synchronization, which is not met if we are clapping too fast. So you have to slow down in order to create the condition for synchronization. Now if you would—we could call a game the fact that they voluntarily, everybody at a certain moment, slows down.p. Now what happens is that slowing down means that practically they leave every second beat of their clapping out, so they clap, you know, twice as slow as previously they did. But then that’s not noisy enough for them, because on average you get less noise; you’re obviously not clapping that much. So they start clapping faster and faster and faster, and eventually, when they reach practically the same speed as they were before, the condition for the synchronization disappears, and the synchronization goes away. So they clap again randomly.p. GLADSTONE: Can you intentionally disrupt the pattern?p. Prof. BARABASI: We did always when we were kids. I mean, we tried to do that. It’s really hopeless. You know, there’s a big mass of people there, you know, who are all happy and clapping synchron—even if you have, like, a group of people of five or six who would try to change that one, it’s not going to happen.p. GLADSTONE: Thank you very much for speaking to us.p. Prof. BARABASI: Sure. You’re welcome.p. GLADSTONE: Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, and he spoke to us from his office.p. (Soundbite of synchronized clapping)p. GLADSTONE: Thank you, thank you. You’re all too kind at 22 minutes before the hour.

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