James Gleick – Chaos


Another book that was in the air in the late 80s but, unlike Sacks, few of the people who read it, and even fewer who heard about it in documentaries and everyday speech, took the basic message seriously. You might dimly remember something about fractals, conch-shells, butterflies in the Philippines and Bruce Springsteen causing the Crash of 874 but the precise connection between that bulbous shape (the Mandelbrot Set, as used in the backdrop for endless naff Rave videos and the odd Crop Circle) and hurricanes is hazy. The world got excited, looked at the pretty pictures, then shrugged and went on to this new Interweb thingy everyone was talking about.

Look again. What’s underlying all the journalistic ‘colour’ about the people involved (at the start of every chapter it’s all human interest, in accordance to some guideline about popular science writing that seems to be in the US Constitution somewhere between the right to not self-incriminate and repealing Prohibition) is a stark truth. The laws of mathematics, for two millennia the benchmark of rigid, deterministic single-solution answers, demand that there are certain conditions for which there is no way to control or predict outcomes. It’s not just that we don’t yet know how to resolve these things into yes/no definition, it’s that it’s just as impossible as making two plus two equal anything other than four. And when I say ‘certain conditions’, I mean a lot of everyday circumstances, to the extent that it’s the pin-point precision of most of the maths we did at school that’s a special case, not the other way around. It’s not that the outcomes are random, it’s that they follow inevitably from the previous conditions in ways that can only be clear in hindsight.

Since this book caused its splash we’ve had a fairly hefty economic crisis that everyone claimed they saw coming just after it happened. That was, it must be admitted, fairly obviously the result of ineptitude in the Bush Administration and under-regulation of global banking. The point is, even if that had been addressed in time, something similar would have had to have happened eventually because the international financial market is a giant feedback loop and governments who think they can control it are as deluded as a Filipino Bond Villain trying to take over the world by breeding butterflies might be.

It may be that you glanced at this book around the time everyone suddenly realised that shoulder-pads looked stupid and then got on with your life. It might be that you thought this was a bit high-brow and nothing to do with you. You may not have been born when people were last talking about this. Gleick’s book is probably the best start even now for a subject that pulls the rug out from anyone who thinks they can control complicated systems. It also shows the hidden connections between natural and man-made events and processes and makes it, however fleetingly, possible to admire something simply because it was unexpected and unrepeatable.

(Oh all right. Here are some pretty pictures and here’s what they mean)

By Tat Wood