Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Chaos, Remembered

The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling in the dark, the red glow of his cigarette floating along the back streets. He would pace for hours, heading nowhere in the starlight that hammers down through the thin air of the mesas. The police were not the only ones to wonder. At the national laboratory some physicists had learned that their newest colleague was experimenting with twenty-six hour days, which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase with theirs. This bordered on strange, even for the Theoretical Division.

So begins Chaos, by James Gleick, which in 1987 more or less singlehandedly introduced chaos theory to the lay audience. Although this book is astonishing and needs no particular excuse to bear mention, I mention it now for a few reasons: first, when I recently saw a used hardcover in our Used Book New Arrivals, I was flooded with all those wonderful chemicals you've heard about - oxytocin, endorphins (maybe even a stirring in a cannabinoid receptor or two) - and when you feel that good, you want to share it with the world.

"Books are our passion."
Secondly, we've been awash in popular science these days, and many of the authors would do well to read (or re-read) Chaos and review everything it does right. Like Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, Chaos tells a story about science without softening sophisticated concepts to meaningless paste, and finely balances the narrative (the humans, with their behaviors and motivations) with the science (the math, in all its brain-busting glory).

Your standard chaos theorist: "Boy, do I hate being right all the time!"
And think about how much fun society has had with chaos! From Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcom to Homer Simpson's experiments with the Butterfly Effect (nerds will recall in season 6, "Time and Punishment"), chaos theory has given us laughter, tears, and a table overflowing with food for thought.

Before I close, it bears mentioning that James Gleick's latest book, The Information, shows clearly that this man does not shirk from the most imposing topics, and is still keenly observing, chronicling and educating the world 15 years later. That's it. That's all I've got to say on the matter. And if this post seemed to lack a coherent structure, then I thank you, dear readers, for indulging me this - ahem - chaotic aside.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, just the other day I had a homeless man offer me his copy of Lord of Light, by Zelanzy. Thanks to your thumbs up of that book, I could say to him with great compassion and kindness, "keep your book, or give it to another, I have already read it." So, it is really a small world...this world of light and lightworkers!

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