Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Order Out of Chaos

I inherited my copy of James Glieck's Chaos in 2007, along with a box of other junk left behind by the Air Force staff sergeant I was replacing in my new office. He had left a bunch of cryptic notes stuffed in the book - mostly libertarian quotes and ideas combining his notions of chaos theory with Ayn Rand - and it took a while for me to decide to actually read the book because I thought he sounded a bit kooky.  I didn't know much about the topic beyond what most people remember from Jurassic Park, and the cover made me think of Deepak Chopra. So at a time in my life when I've been trying to avoid fringe-y, mystical thinking in favor of understanding real science, I almost missed out on this treat.

But when I finally cracked the book and read the stories about Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, and Lorenz's attempts to model weather, I found that it was less strictly a book about science and more a book about scientists. It attempted to describe the people and the problems they were grappling with, and showed how their ideas grew out of wildly different disciplines and, over time, eventually cross-pollinated and became something more than any of the individuals involved had thought possible.

I don't remember when I started, but it has taken me more than 3 years to get through it.  This is not the most difficult book I've tried to read - that honor goes to Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (which I've yet to finish - 20+ years and counting!).  But it is the kind of book that I can only absorb in small sips.  I will pick it up, and run through a couple of chapters, then flip back to previous chapters to make sure I understand what they're talking about - then put it down and think about it... sometimes for weeks or months.

At one point, I took it with me to my boys' Pinewood Derby, and one of the other dads noticed it on the table. "Oh, wow!" he said, "I read that in college!" He seemed excited, and I expected him to ask me about what I thought, or share some pearl of wisdom he had learned from it; but instead he said, "They disproved it  all a few years back, though.  Of course, I'm a creationist, so... you know." And he wandered off.

I didn't say anything, because what I wanted to say would have been rude.  ("I have no idea what you're talking about, but I guess we have that in common.") That whole speech left me perplexed, though, and it colored the way I read the rest of the book.

Up to that point, I had just been enjoying the stories about the scientists, and how they were fumbling with math to try to figure out these perplexingly complex problems. It was neat to see the way their work overlapped, and how unconventional their approaches were.  It also happened that I had discovered Jonathan Coulton's song about Benoit Mandelbrot, whose famous work with fractals features heavily in the first third of the book, so I had something of a soundtrack to go with it.

Still, I was completely baffled when he said, "They disproved that." How do you "disprove" a whole field of study?  How do you "disprove" mathematical observations and modeling?  And what did being a creationist have to do with any of it? As a former evangelical christian myself, I get why creationists object to concepts like evolution, which they perceive as a threat to their worldview, but this was all math. How can you be threatened by math?

So whenever I picked the book up after that, I kept an eye out for something controversial. In retrospect, I'm surprised it took me so long to clue in, especially since Coulton's song spells it out in an instrumental break:
"He gave us order out of chaos
He gave us hope where there was none
His geometry succeeds where others fail"
As I get nearer to the end of the book, and I see the practical applications of this field of study in medicine, manufacturing, and economics, I'm struck again and again by the ways in which words betray us. The whole grand story arc of the book is about how scientists learned to pay attention to "noise" - the small, irritating factors that have always interfered with accurate measurements. Just paying attention to the tiny movements of air and molecules that can throw off sensitive devices, and the way turbulence in liquids can propagate led them to mathematical techniques that allow scientists today to simplify incredibly complex systems - like weather, or the human body.

But the words involved - "noise" and "disorder", "randomness", "linear" and "nonlinear" - all of these words carry baggage if you're not using them in the precise way that the scientists studying these things are using them.  And if your worldview is shaped by a belief that order cannot come from chaos, then any mathematical indication that it does - that, in fact, chaos itself has an implacable and unavoidable order to it - is going to make you very uncomfortable with the field of study.

It's really worth reconsidering what you think you know about all of those words.  When you really look at nature, and you see how deeply ordered things are - these amazing patterns - you begin to realize that things we perceive as random really aren't. If you look, you can see how (dare I say it) evolution of life becomes inevitable in the patterns of interaction between matter and energy. If you really want to see the world that way, you could almost be excused for seeing an intelligent hand involved in designing everything - because mathematically, it's really difficult to actually produce randomness, and our brains try to fit what we observe into patterns of cause and effect.  But at the same time, because randomness is so rare, you don't need an external, supernatural intelligence guiding anything to explain the patterns in the universe.

I think that is what made the guy at the Pinewood Derby say what he said.

Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog (or my Twitter feed) regularly knows how I get when I am confronted by ridiculous assumptions. It still bothers me that the guy said that and caught me off guard, and then left his assumptions hanging in the air behind him.  It bothers me any time people dismiss something they understand poorly because they think it contradicts something else they hold dear, and they are afraid to face the contradiction. It bothers me especially when people take it further and accuse scientist or atheists (two different groups that this particular kind of person thinks they need to lump together) of being cold and passionless, and devoid of curiosity.

If anything, this book is a fascinating refutation of that. It is a fine example of just how curious and passionate people can be about science and math; and while the proofs these people worked out could certainly call into question some fervently held notions about the likelihood of there being a god somewhere (probably dwelling in the infinitely dwindling gaps of a Mandelbrot Set), it's not as if they concocted the ideas out of spite just to give God the finger. They followed the evidence where it led them, and worked out the numbers they needed to get the answers they were looking for.  For all I know, any or all of the scientists working on any of this could be devoutly religious themselves.

The point is: it doesn't matter.

What does matter is that you can learn a lot from just observing the world around you. Some people can learn a lot more than you can, because they're smarter at numbers or better equipped. Those people sometimes learn and share amazing things, and other people just as smart can take that new knowledge and build on it. That's what science is.

In the 25+ years since this book came out, we've already come to take the benefits of chaos theory for granted. My parents and grandparents benefited from improvements in the science of cardiology. Air travel and automobiles have been made more efficient, thanks to better modeling of turbulence. We're all benefiting from advances in miniaturization, data compression, and other computer advances. And even the hapless field of meteorology has advanced to the point where we can at least track weather events, even if we can't reliably predict them.

Of course, I'm a realist, so... you know.

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