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Book Review : Creating a New Discipline From Chaos

November 06, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick (Viking: $19.95; 352 pages, illustrated)

Why is predicting the weather so hard? It should be relatively easy, since the physical laws governing meteorology are well known.

The old line that began "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we. . . " is particularly apt here. If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we predict the weather? After all, the same laws apply. If we can predict the tides long in advance, why not the weather?

It isn't just that there is more data involved in forecasting the weather than in forecasting spacecraft trajectories. There are also interactions among the data--with unpredictable consequences. What's more, large differences in result can follow from small initial differences. These factors make long-term weather forecasting impossible, at least at the current state of knowledge.

What about the economy? Economists have been trying for most of this century to turn their discipline into a predictive science like physics, but without much success. As with the weather, the interactions of so many variables produce many surprising results, confounding efforts to make accurate forecasts.

'Experimental Error'

These are not isolated examples. In the last decade or so, scientists in a variety of disciplines have concluded that nature is not as well-ordered as had been thought. Rather, they find, there is an irreducible element of "chaos" in the universe. Until now it has been overlooked, or written off to "experimental error," but now chaos is a respectable science all its own, a "new science," in the subtitle of James Gleick's fine book on the subject.

Gleick is a New York Times science writer who writes well about mathematics and speculates equally well about its intersection with the real world. In "Chaos," he leavens mathematics and physics with large dollops of the personalities of the researchers and the sociology of cutting-edge research.

In the '80s, chaos researchers in physics, mathematics and biology have moved from being curiosities on the fringes of the scientific Establishment to well-regarded investigators in a fruitful area of inquiry. My informal survey of this subject discloses that colloquia on chaos are among the best attended at any scientific meeting.

This is a hot topic, and Gleick ably brings together the many different strands of his story to give a full account of the breadth and depth of this important work, which is an effort to find the laws that govern the unpredictable. Chaos is not completely chaotic.

"Simple systems give rise to complex behavior," Gleick explains. "Complex systems give rise to simple behavior. And most important, the laws of complexity hold universally, caring not at all for the details of a system's constituent atoms."

At another point he puts it this way: "The world displays a regular irregularity." It is the task of the chaoticians to find out what that regularity is, to express it in a useful way and to apply it to understanding systems and making predictions about them.

Chaos has become a new way for scientists to view the universe, and it is rapidly gaining adherents, as Gleick makes clear. He also makes clear that people involved in this research tend to be very interesting folks who have wide and varied interests and sources of inspiration.

Once again, I concur with this finding from my own experience, having met a number of people Gleick writes about. When I have been with them, I have often felt their extraordinary mental skills and scope, which Gleick portrays. They are quite a cast of characters.

Here are Benoit Mandelbrot, the oddball IBM researcher whose discovery of fractals provided chaos with its geometry; Mitchell Feigenbaum, exploring chaos in the Theoretical Division of Los Alamos National Laboratory, having gotten there from the streets of Brooklyn by way of City College; Doyne Farmer, also at Los Alamos, who when not researching chaos was attempting to create a scheme to beat roulette based on predicting where the little ball would land.

As might be expected, the progress of chaos research has not always been smooth, and Gleick gives a good account of that too. The academic-scientific complex is not quick to embrace new and revolutionary ideas (which is proper, since most of them are wrong). One result is that it is hard to get a Ph.D. in a new, unrecognized field.

The researchers couldn't get their papers published, and they couldn't get grants, and yet they continued their work and now have a fair amount to show for it.

Perhaps the most significant result of their work so far is the growing understanding throughout the natural sciences and the social sciences that complexity, chaos and chance are a built-in part of reality. They cannot be eliminated, but there are tools being developed for dealing with and understanding them.

Gleick's book explains what it's all about and how it came about. It admirably portrays the cutting edge of thought.

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