Chaos – it’s not just a state of mind

I’m pretty sure I got Chaos; Making a New Science by James Gleick from the library because my friend rhapsodized about its wonders – and I’m a sucker for a good David vs. Goliath story. I will admit, it took me awhile to finish this book. The narrative was decent, but I would often get bogged down in the science and crave more lyrical pastures.  Chaos was also around while I was riding The Wheel of Time, so it was renewed a half-dozen times before I finally finished it (no one lining up to read this one). Gleick wrote this book in 1988(ish) and the edition I read is a 20th anniversary edition. For the book, he spoke to many of the early scientific explorers as well as those who dragged the ideas out of obscurity.

Chaos theory is the discipline that brought us the idea that ‘a butterfly flapping its wings can cause storms half the world away’. Now, anyone who knows me (in person or on the interwebs) knows that science is not my area. I love to learn new things, and I find the world a fascinating place, but I’m much more interested in the story of things than the details of atoms or vectors or whatever.  I took the require science classes in both high school & college (took a psychology class for my lab requirement) and ran back to my humanities courses.

I was going to try to summarize the basics of chaos theory – but I’ve decided to spare us all from such folly (and my ego can’t take the beating that will come from the mistakes I’ll surely commit to print).  If you are interested, there is good information here and here, and of course, you could read the book like I did. But here are some of the ideas I took from the book.

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1) A never-repeating but not unpredictable pattern is inherent in the design of nature.

As a person with poetic leanings, I love this idea – and it’s not just an idea, but indeed a fact! So much of the world around us can be predicted with these short little equations that even I could understand, but can result in the myriad of living things all over this planet. The equations are simple, but initial conditions have a huge effect on outcome (a relatively new thing to the scientific world, apparently, but seems pretty obvious to me).

2) Complete understanding is not required to predict outcomes.

It seems that, for decades, engineers have been designing airplanes without understand why they were able to achieve liftoff, or how turbulence would affect them (comforting, yes?). And before that, the turbulence of rivers/streams/oceans was also a mystery to the scientific community.  Equations were built by trying to account for every single possible variable, and it was assumed that if you could not account for everything, you could not predict anything. And since no one had been able to grasp every single variable which influenced – say – cloud formation, predicting the weather (or examining turbulence) was deemed impossible and therefore largely ignored as an area of continuing study. If you were building an airplane, you built a prototype and spent a lot of time in wind tunnels testing it (ok, I feel a little better).

Of course, in our personal lives, this should already have been obvious (though not scientifically proven).  I don’t understand exactly why I’ve been having difficulty getting up in the morning, but that doesn’t mean I can’t predict that I will have that same difficulty next week.  But (at least in the empirical plane), science has found a way to predict turbulence and weather without understanding each piece of the puzzle individually.

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Narratively, the most interesting part of the book (for me) was the fact that many different people had stumbled upon chaos in their scientific pursuits, but either ignored it as a coincidence, or were not taken seriously by their peers and ignored. The early guys who understood that they’d found something interesting were in disparate disciplines and it wasn’t until decades had passed that they discovered each other, and realized how wide-ranging this phenomenon truly was. And I love it when the little guy proves the establishment wrong.

Also – the pictures are stunning. The visual representations of the Mandelbrot equations and whatnot (I don’t remember all the names) are incredible. And I love that math created them – beauty in unexpected places.

I’m glad I read the book.  I know that some of the science has sunk into my (thankfully) subconscious understanding of the world. But it also reinforced my first love – literature – as the place I belong.

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