Most helpful positive review
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Order from Chaos
on September 29, 2007
We all know things that are not predictable. These can be everyday occurrences like the weather, or more specialised events (whether the stock market will go up or down). The unpredictable plays a large part in "normal life". Yet for some of these matters, there is a nagging feeling that if sufficient information were known, the unpredictable would indeed be able to be forecast with as much certainty as whether the sun will rise tomorrow. Thus James Gleick introduces the topic of `chaos' - there can be a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". If we were to know the initial conditions in all their details, predictability would be brought within our grasp. Thus the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in China could result in rainfall in Indianapolis.
At times I was lost in the small detail, but the strength of this book is that it paints a big picture. The mathematics (and physics, and chemistry, and biology, and .....) is sometimes beyond me, but the overall story is that there is `chaos' all around. Some of the chaos is linked into classic Newtonian mechanics, but strangely enough, chaos almost has in itself an order and `predictability' about it.
The three of the most significant scientific theories of the 20th century are reckoned to be Einstein's General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and ...... Chaos Theory. Before opening this very historical account of the last mentioned, I knew nothing about the theory of chaos. Now I have an awareness of the subject, and how experimentation can play a part in mathematics. Experimentation and mathematics are not normally uttered in the same sentence.
Look for the big picture, and do not get lost in the people and places, which can be bewildering. If you read this book, please ensure that it has colour photographs within it - the pictures are both staggering, and help to bring home the message. Some areas of chaos have their roots in self similarity, and the pictures from Mendelbrot sets are both staggering and fascinating. Self similarity can be best summed up by the classic (and anonymous) ditty: "Big fleas have on their backs small fleas to bite them, small flees have smaller fleas and so ad infinitum"
Gleick is strong on the history and roots of chaos, and how the ideas were received when initially tabled. There was shock and disbelief that others from external communities could have something to say that would have relevance to (say) population growth models, from totally different scientific disciplines. There was also reluctance initially to publish some of the ground-braking ideas.
Chaos is about non-linear dynamics, fractals, fractal boundary basins and much more. As `chaos' as a concept (and almost as a discipline) spread, rather than bringing order when chaos had existed before (and this could be described as one of the main purposes of `science'), evidence of more chaos emerges.
From study, it could be that there is more evidence of chaos than we thought hitherto. There could be chaos in space, and the onset of cardiac arrhythmias (heart attacks) seems chaotic. Gleick speculates that `evolution' is chaos with feedback. He has made me more aware of randomness. Classic determinism generates randomness. Perhaps, just perhaps, chaos is a way to reconcile free will and determinism. All in all, unlike the pure scientists of old, I now find myself positively looking for chaos.
Perhaps that is a mark of a well presented book.