All Thoughts Being Equal

A place for new ideas to settle.

22 September 2016

REVIEW: "Chaos: Making a New Science" -- Ian Malcom would be proud

Chaos is one of a few book titles that gets bandied about by math nerds as "one of the good ones," or at least that was my impression. It certainly put James Gleick on the literary map as a guy who explains complicated stuff to the "general public" of "interested readers." And it's about chaos theory, which really made an impression in the 1980s and early 1990s: famously, Michael Crichton lets it play a big role in Jurassic Park―each section of the novel is prefaced with a further iteration of the "dragon curve" along with some esoteric saying about chaotic systems by Crichton's fictional chaotician Ian Malcom.

I didn't put "chaotician" in quotes (except there) because, at least according to Gleick, someone actually described himself as such at a conference! That didn't stop me from repeatedly imagining scenes with Jeff Goldblum from the Jurassic Park movie, though. "The... uh, essence of chaos" and so on.

But is Chaos any good? Well, yes. Yes it is. And I think it's an interesting time-capsule example of both the pop-science Zeitgeist of the Eighties, and of pop-science writing. For all that Gleick attempts to colloquialize the technical aspects of nonlinear dynamics (another synonym for "chaos theory"), I don't think you can say that he dumbs anything down, at least not so far that someone with a little knowledge can't realize where he was coming from. Gleick's style is refreshingly comprehensive, too; reflecting on this, I realized that the contemporary science-communication style of today (see: NPR's Radiolab, e.g.) aims more for "aha!" moments, quips, and "really makes you think" anecdotes. It's entertaining, but often shallow, and sometimes flatly wrong for the sake of entertainment or page clicks.

Gleick, by contrast, gave me a strong sense of the many (many) disparate threads that came together to "make a new science." He takes an interesting middle ground between the "Great Man" theory of history-of-ideas, and the "trends and forces" theory: while certain scientists and theoreticians made remarkable leaps of insight to add to the growing edifice of chaos theory, they simply wouldn't have noticed the right details without certain background developments, particularly in classical dynamics and computation.

The book is also a good reminder of how the cyberpunk style of science fiction is equivalent to the Eighties. This was an era when you literally jacked in to computers, 3 MB of hot RAM was worth something, and computer manufacturers had names like "Control Data Corporation" and "Cray" and "Systron-Donner" (how is that not being run by a cyborg dragon a la Shadowrun?) and everyone thought the Japanese kaisha corporations would buy up everything. So that's a lovely bonus.

I recommend this to anyone who wants to see a bunch of scientific fields come together in one narrative. It's also a great example of science communication. Highly, highly recommended.

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