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Why is Chaos Theory Important for You?

by Bruno Marion

Do you have the right lenses?

Japanese automobiles began flooding American roads at the beginning of the 1980s. It reached such a point that the all-powerful American car manufacturers got jittery. Japanese cars were often better-equipped, more economical to run and above all much cheaper for the buyer. When this situation started becoming seriously worrisome for the Americans, several important American car-manufacturers decided to go and check out for themselves how their rivals worked in Japan. They were warmly welcomed and the Japanese took them around several of their factories.

On returning to the USA, when they were asked by journalists if they had discovered their rivals’ secret, one of the American CEOs responded: “They hoodwinked us! We were shown fake factories! I have been in this business for 30 years and I goddamn know that you just can’t have a factory without any stocks. Well, there was NO stock of any kind in their factories. I tell you it was all one big set-up, we were completely hoodwinked!”

We see the world only in terms of the ability we have to see it: the American CEOs were simply not capable of seeing a factory run without any stocks. They had been shown real factories, though, but without any stock, and there lay one of the secrets of Japanese car-manufacturing which they just could not see: no stock in the factories! Had they been capable of seeing this other reality, they could have studied it, tried to understand it and even taken inspiration from it. They did do this, but many years later, when they realized the advantage of the ‘Just In Time’ production strategy.

Our beliefs, our habits are veritable filters, lenses which enable us to see, to analyze, to understand the world around us. These beliefs, these paradigms, these lenses that once helped us to see the world, no longer do so because the world has changed much too fast and these lenses are no longer adapted to this fast-changing world. We are no longer capable of seeing factories exist without any stock.

Among the lenses or paradigms we use to perceive and understand the world, three have held a very important place over time: spirituality or religions, philosophy and science. If for centuries religion had been predominant, in the last 200 years science has taken the upper hand. To such a degree that it has almost wiped out the other two! And so if science plays such an important role in the way we see and understand the world today, the least we could do is verify that our scientific ‘lenses’ are up-to-date!

Well, these scientific lenses are perfectly adapted to a world that is stable, close to equilibrium or that at least does not veer too far from it. They are also adapted to a binary world; right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, etc. But the world is no longer stable. It has swung out of equilibrium and, in quite a number of domains, it has become turbulent and chaotic. It is also necessary to give up a systematically linear, binary vision and it is indispensable today to develop a vision that is adapted to a turbulent and chaotic world. For this, I suggest that we first understand how our vision of the world is connected, from among other things, with the scientific paradigm of each era. To do so, let’s focus on the main scientific revolutions.

It is difficult to find the starting date and I therefore suggest that the beginning of the technical and scientific adventure was the invention of the wheel. We could date this to about 5000 years ago. We see with the wheel, in fact, how great scientific revolutions sometimes take time to be understood and become widespread, since it has taken us almost 5000 years to fix them on to our suitcases!

First revolution: how long does it take to fill your bathtub?

The first major scientific revolution was, without the slightest doubt, led by Newton who gave us what came to be called classical mechanics. With Newton, we discover that nature is comprehensible. It is also predictable. One of the basic points of classical mechanics is that if one knows the state of a system (positions and speed of the different points) at the initial moment, then one can calculate how this state will evolve in time and, therefore, determine its state at any other moment in time. That is also why we speak of a ‘deterministic’ vision. So, if we know the conditions at the starting-point, we will be able to predict the changes this system will go through with certainty. The cosmos is a huge machine of which it is possible to foresee all the aspects, all the transformations, all the changes in absolute time and space.

The principles of classical Newtonian mechanics are even today the principal paradigm, the main lenses we use to understand the world. And we must acknowledge the fact that we have nothing better today than classical mechanics to determine the time it takes to fill a bathtub or when two trains will cross each other. Most of us are quite comfortable with its basic principles, especially those who still have kids going to school!

So classical mechanics is perfectly suited to analyze, understand and act upon phenomena in equilibrium or close to it. It helps us, for instance, to understand the different forces at work when we study a table resting on the ground (in equilibrium). It will also enable us to understand an oscillating system that is close to equilibrium, a pendulum for example.

We can notice in a number of expressions that we use in our current vocabulary that our vision of the world is influenced by it: “I’ve found the right balance”, “He’s unbalanced”, “It has always been like this and it won’t change now”, “All this is cyclical, it will come back”, “The pendulum will swing back!”, etc.

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Second revolution: all is relative!

A little over a hundred years ago, two revolutions of scientific thought took place within a few years of each other: relativity and quantum mechanics.

Einstein’s Relativity was the second major revolution after Newton’s. Astonishing things emerged on the horizon: nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, the more we approach the speed of light, the slower time gets. The sun curves the rays of light. Nothing can come out of a black hole and so forth. And most significant of all, space and time are not absolute any more, as Newton had affirmed. They are interconnected and can alter according to the observer. Space and time are not absolute, they are relative!

Einstein had become more famous than a rock star. Even those who did not quite understand his theories of special relativity or of general relativity understand that the world will no longer be the same as before. The lenses have irreversibly changed and the consequences of this will sometimes go beyond the scientific fields. And there too, the man on the street seizes on what he has understood or thinks he has understood of the theories of relativity and uses it in his daily discourse, with expressions like: “All is relative.”

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Third revolution: a quantum leap

At about the same time (and what a time!) a third revolution took place in scientific thought with Heisenberg, Planck, Bohr, de Broglie, Born, Schrödinger, and others who set off what would henceforth be known as quantum mechanics. More and more astonishing things emerge for the lay man. For example, we learn that light could be either a wave or a particle. Or again, contrary to classical deterministic mechanics, that it is impossible to know at the same time both the speed and the position of a given object. Or yet again, the probability that I could go through a wall without any damage to me or to the wall is not zero. This is not to encourage you to attempt this at home for the probability isn’t very high really.

It marks the entry of probabilities into what was earlier a deterministic world. It is impossible to foresee precisely when and how certain phenomena will occur. We can only know the probability. Relativity was already a revolution of thinking but at least it was polite enough to maintain the rule of cause and effect. Quantum mechanics questions this and partially turns it upside down. It isn’t only quantum mechanics that partially challenges it. Chance makes its cheeky entry on the scene. Another wall of classical thinking crumbles and once more, it is translated in our everyday language with expressions like: “It’s a real quantum leap!”quanta

Fourth revolution: the theories of chaos

The last and most recent major scientific revolution is the theory of chaos, of turbulent systems, of nonlinear systems or phenomenon.

It is difficult to date the theory of chaos precisely. We know when the word ‘fractal’ was coined by Mandelbrot, we know that Poincaré had earlier observed several pieces of the puzzle as had Maxwell and even Einstein. So when these new discoveries in the field of chaos theory emerged, few people were able to make the connection between these attempts. Mathematicians understood a discovery in mathematics, physicists in physics, meteorologists in meteorology, etc.

Thus it is difficult to attribute the theory of chaos to any single person as we do for classical mechanics (Newton) or for relativity (Einstein), or to a few scientists for quantum mechanics. As far as the theories of chaos are concerned, it’s hard to focus on a certain person or persons, a certain place or a precise time, or even a common scientific field. We have people like Poincaré, Lorenz, Feigenbaum, Yorke, Ruelle, Mandelbrot, Prigogine, etc. conducting research in fields as varied and as distant as mathematics, physics, meteorology, finance, hydraulics and biology.

In order to see the emerging coherence of this thinking and its applications in the development of our vision of the world, we had to wait for real unifiers to appear, specialists of the systemic and of epistemology such as Ilya Prigogine, Edgar Morin, and Ervin Lazslo.

If the preceding scientific revolutions had something linear and binary (pre- and post-Newton, pre- and post-Einstein), the theory of chaos appeared more like a ‘fractal’ puzzle which for the last forty years or so has been falling into place and will continue to expand into other fields, as we are going to see. The theory of chaos which we may date somewhat arbitrarily to the end of the 1970s is one of the first developments in science that touches very diverse fields like finance or weather forecast, including some very recent ones like the neurosciences.

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Why are the chaos theories important for you?

Linear mechanics could be said to be at a human scale. It allows us to analyze systems and phenomena that are not too different from the human scale: neither too small nor too large. In very small and very large cases, we’ll realize that it does not hold any longer. Classical linear mechanics is thus perfectly suited to analyze phenomena at the human scale, to understand and act upon a world in equilibrium or close to it. The lenses offered to us by classical Newtonian mechanics suited us perfectly as long as we were few on earth and without much communication compared with today. Newtonian mechanics is ideal for understanding systems and phenomena that are in equilibrium or that oscillate yet remain close to equilibrium, it is not at all ideal in today’s turbulent and chaotic world.

Moreover, we observe that relativity and quantum mechanics do not handle phenomena at a human scale. And most of us, I feel, are still quite far from understanding these notions. Relativity basically deals with what is very, very big and very, very fast. So unless you travel at the speed of light or live close to a black hole, which is hardly commonplace for most of us, the new lenses brought by Einstein, however important they might be to science or from a philosophical and spiritual standpoint, will not necessarily change the understanding of our daily lives. It needs to be noted, however, that the indirect consequences are real enough – take the cases of energy and nuclear weapons, for example.

One could simplify by saying that the theory of relativity is less relevant at the human scale rather than at the scale of the infinitely large or the infinitely fast.

As for quantum mechanics, it deals with the very, very small. And the lenses it brings, important as they might be from the philosophical and spiritual standpoint, will not, for that matter, change the understanding of our daily lives. As for relativity, we are quite clearly there are very few who understand fully its concepts. This is of no importance as its direct consequences are not so significant in our daily lives today even though its indirect consequences are beginning to seem important, with the transistor, laser, etc.

One could simplify by saying that at the human scale the theories of quantum mechanics apply little; they apply more at the level of the infinitely small.

Unlike Relativity and quantum mechanics, Chaos theories deal the very, very small to the very very large… including the human scale. Therefore, chaos theories can provide the new lenses we absolutely need to understand our chaotic world.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to turn you into experts on the theories of chaos! Just try to focus on whatever might serve as lenses or tools to help you see, understand and act upon our complex, turbulent, chaotic, fast-changing world.