|"An awe-inspiring book. Reading it gave me that sensation that someone had just found the light switch." óDouglas Adams
a stunning work, a deeply exciting subject in the hands of a first-rate science
writer. The implications of the research James Gleick sets forth are
at a discount from Amazon.
More chaos links:
Good starting point: sci.nonlinear.faq
Applied chaos at Georgia Tech
Fractal Domains Gallery
Chaos is not only enthralling and precise, but full of beautifully
strange and strangely beautiful ideas."-Douglas
"I was caught
up and swept along by the flow of this astonishing chronicle of scientific
thought. It has been a long, long time since I finished a book and immediately
started reading it all over again for sheer pleasure.-Lewis
|From the Prologue:
The police in the small town
of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling
in the dark, night after night, the red glow of his cigarette floating along
the back streets. He would pace for hours, heading nowhere in the starlight
that hammers down through the thin air of the mesas. The police were not
the only ones to wonder. At the national laboratory some physicists had learned
that their newest colleague was experimenting with twenty-six-hour days,
which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase
with theirs. This bordered on strange, even for the Theoretical Division.
† †In the three decades since J. Robert Oppenheimer chose this
unworldly New Mexico
the atomic bomb project, Los Alamos National Laboratory had spread across
an expanse of desolate plateau, bringing particle accelerators and gas lasers
and chemical plants, thousands of scientists and administrators and technicians,
as well as one of the world's greatest concentrations of supercomputers.
Some of the older scientists remembered the wooden buildings rising hastily
out of the rimrock in the 1940s, but to most of the Los Alamos staff, young
men and women in college-style corduroys and work shirts, the first bombmakers
were just ghosts. The laboratory's locus of purest thought was the Theoretical
Division, known as T division, just as computing was C division and weapons
was X division. More than a hundred physicists and mathematicians worked
in T division, well paid and free of academic pressures to teach and publish.
These scientists had experience with brilliance and with eccentricity. They
were hard to surprise.
† †But Mitchell Feigenbaum was an unusual case. He had exactly
one published article to his name, and he was working on nothing that seemed
to have any particular promise. His hair was a ragged mane, sweeping back
from his wide brow in the style of busts of German composers. His eyes were
sudden and passionate. When he spoke, always rapidly, he tended to drop articles
and pronouns in a vaguely middle European way, even though he was a native
of Brooklyn. When he worked, he worked obsessively. When he could not work,
he walked and thought, day or night, and night was best of all. The
twenty-four-hour day seemed too constraining. Nevertheless, his experiment
in personal quasiperiodicity came to an end when he decided he could no longer
bear waking to the setting sun, as had to happen every few days.
† †At the age of twenty-nine he had already become a savant among
the savants, an ad hoc consultant whom scientists would go to see about any
especially intractable problem, when they could find him. One evening he
arrived at work just as the director of the laboratory, Harold Agnew, was
leaving. Agnew was a powerful figure, one of the original Oppenheimer
apprentices. He had flown over Hiroshima on an instrument plane that accompanied
the Enola Gay, photographing the delivery of the laboratory's first
† †"I understand you're real smart," Agnew said to Feigenbaum.
"If you're so smart, why don't you just solve laser fusion?"
† †Even Feigenbaum's friends were wondering whether he was ever
going to produce any work of his own. As willing as he was to do impromptu
magic with their questions, he did not seem interested in devoting his own
research to any problem that might pay off. He thought about turbulence in
liquids and gases. He thought about time--did it glide smoothly forward or
hop discretely like a sequence of cosmic motion-picture frames? He thought
about the eye's ability to see consistent colors and forms in a universe
that physicists knew to be a shifting quantum kaleidoscope. He thought about
clouds, watching them from airplane windows (until, in 1975, his scientific
travel privileges were officially suspended on grounds of overuse) or from
the hiking trails above the laboratory.
† †In the mountain towns of the West, clouds barely resemble the
sooty indeterminate low-flying hazes that fill the Eastern air. At Los Alamos,
in the lee of a great volcanic caldera, the clouds spill across the sky,
in random formation, yes, but also not-random, standing in uniform spikes
or rolling in regularly furrowed patterns like brain matter. On a stormy
afternoon, when the sky shimmers and trembles with the electricity to come,
the clouds stand out from thirty miles away, filtering the light and reflecting
it, until the whole sky starts to seem like a spectacle staged as a subtle
reproach to physicists. Clouds represented a side of nature that the mainstream
of physics had passed by, a side that was at once fuzzy and detailed, structured
and unpredictable. Feigenbaum thought about such things, quietly and
† †To a physicist, creating laser fusion was a legitimate problem;
puzzling out the spin and color and flavor of small particles was a legitimate
problem; dating the origin of the universe was a legitimate problem.
Understanding clouds was a problem for a meteorologist. Like other physicists,
Feigenbaum used an understated, tough-guy vocabulary to rate such problems.
Such a thing is obvious, he might say, meaning that a result could be understood
by any skilled physicist after appropriate contemplation and calculation.
Not obvious described work that commanded respect and Nobel prizes. For the
hardest problems, the problems that would not give way without long looks
into the universe's bowels, physicists reserved words like deep. In 1974,
though few of his colleagues knew it, Feigenbaum was working on a problem
that was deep: chaos.
Where chaos begins, classical
science stops. For as long as the world has had physicists inquiring into
the laws of nature, it has suffered a special ignorance about disorder in
the atmosphere, in the turbulent sea, in the fluctuations of wildlife
populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain. The irregular
side of nature, the discontinuous and erratic side---these have been puzzles
to science, or worse, monstrosities.
† †But in the 1970s a few scientists in the United States and Europe
began to find a way through disorder. They were mathematicians, physicists,
biologists, chemists, all seeking connections between different kinds of
irregularity. Physiologists found a surprising order in the chaos that develops
in the human heart, the prime cause of sudden, unexplained death. Ecologists
explored the rise and fall of gypsy moth populations. Economists dug out
old stock price data and tried a new kind of analysis. The insights that
emerged led directly into the natural world---the shapes of clouds, the paths
of lightning, the microscopic intertwining of blood vessels, the galactic
clustering of stars.
† †Now that science is looking, chaos seems to be everywhere. A
rising column of cigarette smoke breaks into wild swirls. A flag snaps back
and forth in the wind. A dripping faucet goes from a steady pattern to a
random one. Chaos appears in the behavior of the weather, the behavior of
an airplane in flight, the behavior of cars clustering on an expressway,
the behavior of oil flowing in underground pipes. No matter what the medium,
the behavior obeys the same newly discovered laws. That realization has begun
to change the way business executives make decisions about insurance, the
way astronomers look at the solar system, the way political theorists talk
about the stresses leading to armed conflict.
† †Chaos breaks across the lines that separate scientific disciplines.
Because it is a science of the global nature of systems, it has brought together
thinkers from fields that had been widely separated. Chaos poses problems
that defy accepted ways of working in science. It makes strong claims about
the universal behavior of complexity. The first chaos theorists, the scientists
who set the discipline in motion, shared certain sensibilities. They had
an eye for pattern, especially pattern that appeared on different scales
at the same time. They had a taste for randomness and complexity, for jagged
edges and sudden leaps. Believers in chaos--and they sometimes call themselves
believers, or converts, or evangelists--speculate about determinism and free
will, about evolution, about the nature of conscious intelligence. They feel
that they are turning back a trend in science toward reductionism, the analysis
of systems in terms of their constituent parts: quarks, chromosomes, or neurons.
They believe that they are looking for the whole.