James Gleick’s bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science was published more than twenty years ago. The book introduced the public to an intriguing theory, the mavericks who pioneered it, and some of its most promising applications. So where does the new chaos science stand?
Gleick’s book is interesting and well-written, but I found it unsatisfying. The use of the word “chaos” is misleading. Chaos implies a total lack of order; the phenomena described in the book are all deterministic. In fact, some people call it “deterministic chaos.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me.
Near the end of the book Gleick admits that some of the researchers he portrayed are themselves uncomfortable using the word “chaos.” The systems they study appear to behave randomly only because they are extremely sensitive to small perturbations in initial conditions. That’s true for systems that are either complex or simple and nonlinear.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against studying systems that are complex or nonlinear. Some of my best friends are complex or nonlinear.
What bugs me is that Gleick and others use the word “chaos” simply for its mystique. I guess we are supposed to imagine that chaos theory transcends ordinary science and discovers higher truths. Still, I’m willing to cut the chaos kids a little slack. Brochures present products in their best light and resumes do the same for job seekers. Why shouldn’t complex/nonlinear system researchers toot their own horn?
What worries me is that chaos theory promises to revolutionize important applications such as diagnosing and treating heart arrhythmia--but mainly delivers more research proposals. I realize that fractals—which have many practical applications—are now associated with chaos theory, but the mathematics underlying fractals has been around a long time. Chaos theory also promises advances in such far-flung fields as economics, meteorology, and ecology; good luck with that!
An article in Complexity Digest suggests that chaos theory “inspired” development of a method for predicting epileptic seizures. No one can argue with that claim. But it boils down to searching for and finding patterns amidst what appear at first to be random fluctuations. Isn’t that called “pattern recognition”?
It’s hard to trust a science with a misleading name. Particularly when there is so much taxpayer-funded research.