The Metaphor of ChaosTheory
At one time or another, we've all felt our lives were out ofcontrol and heading toward chaos. For us, science has striking news. Ourlives are already in chaos--and not just occasionally, but all of the time.What's more, the new science suggests, an individual and collectiveunderstanding of chaos may dramatically change our lives.
Although we humans tend to abhor chaos and avoid it whenever possible, nature uses chaos in remarkable ways to create new entities, shape events, and hold the Universe together. This revelation about chaos was first made by scientists about thirty years ago and has since been actively investigated.But the real meaning of chaos for us, as individuals and a society, is onlynow beginning to be explored.
Just what is chaos? The answer has many facets and will take a little explanation. To begin with, chaos turns out to be far subtler than the commonsense idea that it is the messiness of mere chance--the shuffling of a deck of cards, the ball bouncing around in aroulette wheel, or the loose stone clattering down a rocky mountainside.The scientific term "chaos" refers to an underlying interconnectedness thatexists in apparently random events. Chaos science focuses on hiddenpatterns, nuance, the "sensitivity" of things, and the "rules" for how theunpredictable leads to the new. It is an attempt to understand the movementsthat create thunderstorms, raging rivers, hurricanes, jagged peaks, gnarledcoastlines, and complex patterns of all sorts, from river deltas to the nervesand blood vessels in our bodies. Let's begin to grasp this approach bylooking at chaos as it is reflected in four very different pictures.
The firstphoto, taken by the Hubble space telescope, is of a collision between twogalaxies. Like a pebble thrown into a lake, this violent encounter flung aviolent ripple of energy into space, plowing gas and dust before it at 200,000miles per hour. This certainly sounds like our traditional idea of chaos, yetwithin this outer ring of hot gasses, billions of new stars are being born.Here we see that chaos is both death and birth, destruction and creation.Out of the chaos of primeval gases unfold many varieties of stable order,quite possibly including the highly predictable orbits of planetary systemssuch as our own. Subatomic particles formed within the first moments of the"big bang" birth of the cosmos are still contained within our bodies inordered forms. When we die, they will return to the flux of chaos that is asmuch at work here on Earth as in this galactic explosion. In a deep way, thisphotograph is a picture of the chaos of each one of us.
The second image shows the turbulence of a mountain stream. Here, apparent disordermasks an underlying pattern. Sit by this stream and you begin to notice thatit is simultaneously stable and ever-changing. The water's turbulencegenerates complex shapes that are constantly renewed. So this stream isanother metaphor for ourselves. Like the stream, our physical bodies areconstantly being renewed and transformed as cells are regularly replaced.Meanwhile, that "self" that we believe lies within the body at ourpsychological center is also in flux. We are both the "same" person we wereten years ago and a substantially new person. But we can go evenfurther.
A little reflection reveals that the stream depicted here isinextricable from the other ecosystems to which it's connected--the myriadanimals and plants that drink from its waters; the twigs, leaves, and seedsthat litter the dimple and swirl of its surface; the ancient deposits ofglaciers that alter its course; the climate and weather of the region; theseason-making orbit of the planet through space. Similarly, each of usas an individual is inter-connected to the systems of nature, society, andthought that surround and flow through us. We live within movementsconstantly affecting each other and creating an unpredictable chaos at manylevels. Yet within this same chaos is born all the physical and psychologicalorder that we know.
The third photograph is an all too familiar image ofthe everyday human chaos produced by technology and human thought.Vehicles traveling individually along the engineered space of a highwaysystem interact with each other to create alternating regions of gridlockedtraffic, sudden stop and go, and free-flowing lanes. Viewed from inside oneof those vehicles, the movement of traffic appears patternless and random,but from the perspective of an aircraft flying overhead, subtle patternsemerge--a hidden order within the chaos.
The fourth picture is quite adifferent image of chaos. Deep within the logically ordered constructs ofmathematics lurks a turbulent set of numbers named after BenoitMandelbrot, the mathematician who discovered them and made themfamous. Think of the area depicted within the rectangular frame of the pictureas the dense, microscopic rows of dots on a TV screen. Each dotcorresponds to a number and is colored as either black or white, dependingupon how it reacted when it was slotted into an equation. When theequation was "iterated," or fed back into itself again and again, the numbereither grew or fell to zero.
The big white warty shape is composed ofdots where the numbers fell to zero and stayed there. But in the regionalong the edge of the white area something strange happens. Here thenumbers create patterns that bubble and striate like alien life-forms. Theboundaries become filled with all manner of unpredictable repetitions. Thisbizarre behavior shows that chaos--and its paradoxical order--liesconcealed even within the confines of pure mathematical logic. Many peoplefind this mathematical object strikingly beautiful and engaging. Indeed, one ofthe important characteristics of our new understanding of chaos is itsaesthetic appeal.