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It's Chaos out there It's Chaos out there

By Ale Barrera
University College London, UK.

It received a National Book Award in 1987, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and has been considered to be one of the best popular science books. It’s considered a classic, but is it a must-read for scientists?

Here, Gleick introduces the reader to the concept of chaos, explaining this rather complex mathematical theory in simple terms and gives a chronological account of events leading to its discovery and development as a new science. Sadly, I wouldn’t recommend the book to a science novice as, although Gleick makes an effort to avoid jargon, on more than one occasion the reader encounters some dangerous looking scientific terms.

Chaos is extremely important for scientists of all disciplines. It has provided a new way of thinking and of looking at the world. Chaos has been described in many different ways, my favourite being that given by Ford, who, in his quote encapsulates much of its beauty: “Dynamics free at last from the shackles of order and predictability… systems liberated to randomly explore their every dynamical possibility…” As exciting as it sounds, the existence of a theory for randomness and chaos means that scientists shouldn’t just ignore those random data they come across as (unfortunately) it may be important. For those into their theory, it means assuming less and having to do more difficult maths!                                                           
Apart from explaining chaos and complexity in a non-mathematical way with the use of illustrated examples, the book looks at the lives of major scientists who contributed to the development of the theory. To be honest I find this aspect of the book to be much more enthralling than the actual theory itself. We are presented with all kinds of characters (and beware ladies, all male!), from an obsessive, egocentric mathematician, a pioneering meteorologist, to a mathematician who caught the American government lying, and a physicist frustrated with the politics of academia (aren’t we all?). Gleick describes with humour the lack of understanding between mathematicians and physicist, and the difference between the work of theoreticians and experimenters.

Chaos may change the way you look at the world like it says at the back of the book, and it may not, as happened to me. Whichever way, it’s still worth reading for its historical account, to get an idea of what chaos is and, above all, to laugh at scientists and their ways. As an experimenter myself, I just had to laugh at Gleick’s comparison: “The theorist invents his companions, as a naïve Romeo imagined his ideal Juliet. The experimenter’s lovers sweat, complain, and fart.”

James Gleick, Chaos: Making a new science. Penguin books, 1988.

Buy a copy at our awesome bookshop. Or click here if you want to pay in dollars.

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