In 1961 an American Meteorologist named Edward Lorenz was fiddling about with mathematical equations in order to predict the weather. After plugging some values into his computer the results that emerged shocked the scientific world. It was one of the most significant moments in our scientific understanding of natural systems, because it ultimately led to the inevitable conclusion that you don’t need the guiding hand of God to create the exquisite, complex beauty of our universe.

Let me explain the fascinating story of chaos, order and self organisation.

With the advent of the 20th century, the universe was believed to be a huge machine behaving in predictable ways – like a ginormous clock. Anything that was unpredictable occurred because we didn’t know all the details or an outside force upset our results and so could be ignored. In this way of thinking we couldn’t predict the weather with certainty because we didn’t have all the data. This was our Newtonian world.

While Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum theory somewhat upset this cosy ordered determinism, they did not explain the workings of our everyday world – climate systems, population dynamics, how capillaries grow etc. Many everyday natural systems were unpredictable and difficult to fully understand. This was a conundrum that needed to be tidied up.

Lorenz’s fiddling turned the notion of a Newtonian world on it’s head. He found that by repeating his experiment, the tiniest changes in the conditions at the start led to wildly unpredictable outcomes. This was not supposed to happen. Such changes shouldn’t make a significant difference as the process should be self-correcting. Later he said it was as if the flap of a butterflies wings in Brazil could, months later, set of a tornado in Texas – The Butterfly Effect was born.

*…out of the cosmic soup of chaos emerge spontaneous patterns of order: self-organising complexity.*

So out of this grew Chaos theory – the theory that there is unpredictability woven into the very fabric of our universe. This theory or understanding also shows us that out of the cosmic soup of chaos emerge spontaneous patterns of order: self-organising complexity.

So just how does this occur? In one word: feedback.

We do know that natural systems such as cloud formation, chemical reactions in a pond or the way a fern leaf grows behave in complicated ways. (The same goes for artificial systems such as stock market gyrations or movement of traffic in a city). However their behaviour is based on surprisingly simple mathematical rules which have an important property called feedback. Feedback – where the rules are repeated over and over again – makes simple systems produce outcomes that are entirely unpredictable. But this very feature allows the natural world to create intricate patterns of structure – deeply linked order and chaos. Yin and Yang I dare say.

So simplicity gives rise to infinite complexity with no need for anything more than simple processes. Evolution is natural selection based on simple rules with no need for conscious thought. We get complex organisms evolving without a designer. Profound beauty is already there waiting to be created – it’s an innate part of our universe.

If nature is inherently unpredictable does this make for a gloomy uncertain universe? Not at all. It makes it all the more enthralling and mysterious.

We are all both simple and complex; both unique and all made of the same stuff – we emerged out of stardust.

We can now say that while we know the universe is beautiful, we just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Everyday is a new day.

The cosmos is a dance of chaos, order, simplicity and complexity. But we could ask: what created the beginnings of our universe? Maybe God lent a hand with that….

*Not chaos-like together crushed and bruised. But as the world, harmoniously confused. Where order in variety we see. And where, though all things differ, all agree – Alexander Pope*

Categories: Science, Strange Things

Hi James,

It is fascinating – I just wrote a post regarding the Butterfly Effect and Edward Lorenz. You may find it of interest.

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What Lorenz really said (wrote) was “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” It is a question and the answer is, “it does not”. The conclusion is that long-range weather forecasting is an impossibility.

120 years ago a physicist, William Franklin, wrote something very similar – although he used a grasshopper in Montana and a storm in Philadelphia.

Let us not forget that Lorenz was writing about mathematical models to assist with weather forecasting. It is a mathematical model – not reality.

There is a few references in my article which you may find fascinating. Lorenz was a gifted mathematician. He would have been well known in as climate researcher even without his contribution to Chaos Theory.

Richard