I remember (vaguely) attending a seminar one evening while I was in undergrad that would give me extra credit if I could write a one-page summary of the topic. The presentation was given by a mathematics professor at my school, the subject was Chaos Theory. You may recognize the term from Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, in which he played the “Chaotician” Dr. Malcolm. Or, perhaps you have some personal experience with the theory, in which case you may find the rest of this post mundane at best. Regardless, out of the majority of my experience in math and physics while I was an undergraduate student, the presentation I attended (vaguely) stands out most.
Why, you ask, would anyone want to waste their time on such a theory? To begin, Chaos Theory is a mathematical discipline that applies to incredibly large and complex systems like weather, animal migration, the expansion of forests, and even boiling water. It is a more “modern” area of study born out of computer models and the need for the ability to measure intense amounts of data. Philosophically speaking, it denotes a change in thinking from causality (what goes up, must come down) to a form of non-linear identification. It’s incredibly useful, but, I would argue, not really “new”.
I remember the moment our professor projected his computer screen onto the wall and excitedly pressed a button over and over again, nearly jumping up and down as he did so, causing different data points to appear in a graph. The points were connected by lines which made an odd mix of, I don’t know, say fifteen or so connections. After several button presses the presenter shouted, “Wait! What’s happened!” No new data point appeared on the screen. The seemingly random appearance of points had cycled through and started to repeat itself. In summation of the presentation, the lesson our professor was trying to impart was that even in what appears to be chaos, if you look at it long enough, from a “macro” perspective, an order emerges. In other words, chaos is based both in causality and non-linear identification. What changes its behavior is not the process itself, but the point of view from which the process is observed.
Sound somewhat familiar? If you’ve been following some of the recent articles posted that discuss new experiments with electrons in quantum physics, it might. Studies have shown that when an electron is directed at a barrier with two openings, as long as someone is watching, the electron will only go through one opening. However, if no one is watching, the electron will actually pass through both openings. The behavior of the particle is solely dependent on the perception of the observer.
Oh, that wasn’t the familiar part? Sorry, I like to connect what appear to be random pieces of information. The recognizable part you were thinking of is probably your life, right? Yeah, that was my first thought too.
One of the phrases I strongly dislike is, “I don’t like change.” I hear people use it a lot and it’s difficult for me to describe how silly I think it is. To me, that phrase demonstrates just how self-involved we’ve become as a society. The majority of us like our happy patterns, predictable days and mundane nights. It’s easy, it’s not stressful and most importantly, it doesn’t require a lot of effort on our part. With routine comes complacency, and we like feeling satisfied. When one thing interrupts that pattern though, a traffic jam that makes us late for work, a tree that falls on our garage or a sudden realization you spent all our “fun money” in the first weekend after we got paid, it seriously screws with our mentality. People freak out. As if their entire existence has been completely rearranged! It’s like all of a sudden the world is coming to an end, nothing will ever be the same again!
A phrase I do like is, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We act as though societal issues like poverty, class warfare, war itself are modern day struggles. “This is the tipping point!” The reality is these things have always existed, for as long as history has been recorded. Any tale of a truly utopian society has simply left out massive parts of the story in order to try and teach future generations a lesson. I don’t think we’ve learned a whole lot. Sure, the actors have changed and the methods used are different. Really, though, has anything changed?
I promise I’m not trying to be fatalistic, I’m just trying to point out that the way we live our lives is solely dependent on our own perception. Throw out the conversation about the nature of reality. Stop debating on whether or not we’re built out of quarks winking in and out of existence, for just a second. Think about the way you view your life, the way you get out of bed every day. Do you get up expecting everything to follow the path that you in your mind have laid out, before yourself? Or do you get up with the general notion that things are going to happen to you, no matter what you do? It’s a lot to ask a person to deliberatly consider the way they process their surroundings. It’s not comfortable, it’s not complacent.
That one page summary I was supposed to turn in for extra credit? I don’t think I ever finished it. After the presentation I couldn’t bring myself to the obvious conclusion, and in my mind at the time, it had nothing to do with mathematics. The funny thing about Chaos Theory is that it attempts to consider all of the variables required to predict an outcome. The reason the weather man is only right 50% of the time is simple, it’s impossible to consider everything that could affect an outcome. You can gather as much data as you can, add as many variables to the algorithm as your brain can fathom, but in the end the equation is still limited to your own understanding. Can you guess why the patterns begin to repeat?