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Iteration, Feedback, and Change: Chaos Theory

Published on Thursday, June 09, 2011 in , , , , ,

Rogilbert's Lorenz attractor renderingBefore I wind this series up and tie everything together, it's time to go back to the beginning. Not the beginning of this series, but to the beginning of our desire to understand the universe.

When it came to explanations for our universe, the first one we had was the deity theory, as described in this post by Douglas Adams.

From there, we gradually saw how math accurately reflected the real world, and came to think of nature as a clockwork universe. In the Infinitely Reasonable episode of James Burke's The Day The Universe Changed, you can learn society as a whole came to this belief, right up through the days of Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton brought a certain clarity to physics. Perhaps that clarity was its own undoing, because with better tools, that classical Newtonian clockwork universe began to fall apart. In another episode of The Day The Universe Changed, entitled Making Waves, we learn about the problems with Newtonian physics, and just why Einstein's new relative physics was so important:


For a more detailed explanation of Einstein's theories, as well as physics during and after Einstein's life, I highly recommend watching the episode of The Universe called Beyond the Big Bang.

This new relative universe is still being explored. It makes the universe more complicated and chaotic, so what exactly does that mean for how the universe works?

Not surprisingly, a new branch of science came along to study exactly this question. It is called chaos theory. Most people were first introduced to the idea of chaos theory in the movie Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum played it off as if it were just preparing for the unexpected.

Chaos theory is actually quite a bit more substantive than that. It's about examining dynamic processes that are highly affected by their initial conditions, and the great effects even the most minor conditions can have on these processes.

Having talked about artificial life, evolution, game theory, fractals, and now physics, chaos theory is the field that ties all them together in a coherent package. In the documentary below, The Secret Life of Chaos, you'll learn about its amazing and tragic beginning, and how it encompasses what I've been discussing in this series.


This is an excellent framework for the strange new world in which we find ourselves, and for examining how it unfolds.

As you read this, you're taking advantage of one of the results of iteration, feedback, and change - the internet! As a user of the internet, you're already better equipped to understand the potential power and effects of chaos theory than anyone who lived before you. The internet was designed as a system that could remain functional by dynamically routing around physical damage. That basic design philosophy has remained as a basis, but grown into a system that works around any kind of damage.

In what I think of as one of the more underrated stories of 2011, Twitter provided a wonderful example of this. Canada has a ban on transmitting election results to a wide audience before all the country's polls are closed. However, since you can read tweets from anywhere in the world at any given time, this law proved to be of little concern. Canadians with knowledge of election results simply e-mailed what they knew to people from other countries, where that knowledge was tweeted without worry for consequence for anyone to read, anywhere in the world (especially in Canada).

It's amazing how much development you can find with just a little searching. Here's a Discover Magazine article on robots that used evolutionary programming to teach themselves to lie. Many were surprised 4 years ago, when the accuracy of the mass-edited Wikipedia was actually found to have a better accuracy than traditional encyclopedias edited by dedicated experts. Even more recently, we're learning about how the power of the individual can make the difference between “the wisdom of the crowds” and a dumb herd.

I hope you've enjoyed this series, and that it gives you food for thought. If you've learned anything from this series, or have any insights you'd like to share, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

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