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Friday, July 30, 2010

On Chaos Theory (Or Rather, A Smaller Part of the Much Larger Field)

Ever since I discovered what chaos theory was a few years ago, I have been very intrigued by the field (Yes, I know it is a Wikipedia page, but the website has become much more accurate over the years).  In an incredibly abbreviated synopsis, chaos theory states that even extremely small changes in a system (i.e. weather system, ecosystem) will result in a completely different end result had the change not been made.  For example, one of the men who helped develop chaos theory, Edward Lorenz, had a computer that generated weather patterns based on equations that he put into the machine.  He would switch through various functions to produce different weather scenarios. One day, out of laziness, he left off the sixth decimal place in his equations (so a number such as 4.928472 became 4.92847) and let the machine run and generate weather patterns.  When he came back several hours later, the end result was extremely different than that for the equation that used six decimal places.  This slight variation in the complex system caused the system to behave in a completely different manner.  Lorenz compared the difference to a butterfly flapping its wings, and this is where the term "butterfly effect," which theorizes that a butterfly flapping its wings in, say, Australia, could cause a tornado in Kansas due to the change in the chaotic system, came into use.  Another classic example is the novel-turned-movie Jurassic Park, in which scientists try unsuccessfully to control nature, which is too complex and thus gets out of control.  Chaos theory seeks to predict what would otherwise be incredibly random and unpredictable events (like the weather).

Technicalities aside, I wanted to note a few smaller observations of what I consider to be chaos theory in action.  They involve the parking lot that I mentioned a while back.  Generally, people park in an orderly fashion.  Nevertheless, and this happens more often than not, once one person goes out of order (i.e. parks somewhere else, does not park great), it disrupts the whole system.  People begin to follow this one disruption.  I have seen many cars park neatly, and as soon as one car is a little off, cars after that one begin to park more and more off.  In a sense, the system becomes chaotic.  This parking lot also double parks cars when it gets busy.  Some nights, however, double parking is not allowed.  People do not always know this, and sometimes one person will accidentally double park.  As soon as the one person double parks, many accidentally follow.  It's not their faults, it is just chaos theory coming into play.  Once there is that one deviation, chaotic behavior follows, and it is difficult to undo.

Since I enjoy this subject a lot, I will definitely continue to mention any future observations of chaos theory.

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