In The First Few Chapters Of Chaos

In the first few chapters of Chaos, author James Gleick provides the brief and recent history of what he and other physicists have dubbed ”the new science”.

Chaos is a branch of physics that has been developing since the time computers were introduced into the scientific laboratory. As computers became more advanced, they were thought to perhaps have great powers for predicting future outcomes if provided reliable equations for known physical laws and a set of initial circumstances from which to perform their complex postulations. However, a meteorologist who had created a simulated weather environment on a computer realized that no physical measurements could ever be so precise as to effect pure determinability, and thus the seed for a chaos principle in the universe was planted.

Generally speaking, chaos considers the potential for unpredictability that seems to be inherent in all physical systems. Although the unpredictable element may be minute, chaoticians insist that no change or influence, no matter how mild, should be neglected when considering the behavior of matter. The slightest disturbance can drastically alter the order of the system so as to render it entirely unpredictable.  Physical laws are merely approximations that are useful for short-term or microscopic operations but not stable enough for accurate long-range or macroscopic observations.

Chaos theory has not enjoyed wide acceptance amongst the scientific community and still remains something of an under-tested discipline, but its adherents are growing in number, and they feel that their research is revolutionary. So far, the chaos movement has been comprised of thinkers who come from a variety of disciplines, all of whom have an unorthodox approach to physics either by dint of their specialty being a discipline other than physics or simply from being “outside the box” conceptualists and experimenters.  Chaoticians have also embraced computer technology as a replacement for the traditional lab since more complex concepts can be explored through data-driven simulations.

Reading about chaos reminds me of the Terry Gilliam film Brazil, where the protagonist, a paper-pushing cog abiding by the rigid order of a hyper-bureaucratic dystopian near-future, has his life upended when an insect lands in the works of a printer at a government agency and distorts a single letter in the name of someone on an arrest sheet. From there, the wrong person, who has a similar name, is arrested accidentally, and this mishap of approximation is the impetus for a series of events that soon finds our protagonist involved in a set of wild circumstances that become increasingly chaotic.

As the film becomes more chaotic, however, it becomes more interesting, and the protagonist soon finds the upheaval that has been introduced into his life to be a welcome remedy for the vapid orderliness that he once joylessly upheld.  As it is observed in Gleick’s book: “…disorderly behavior of simple systems [act] as a creative process”, meaning that chaos has the potential to enrich stable systems with a semblance of the unknown and infinitely variable.  In this context, chaos and unpredictability could be applied as concepts to any science that wishes to explore emergence or the nature of originality and original creation.

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