May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

What (or Who) Is Chaos? The Problem with Scientific Words

Posted: Monday, November 4th, 2013

by David Pummill 

My granddaughters have a cousin named Chaos. They asked me what his name means and the teacher in me prompted me to ask, “Did you look it up?” This resulted in dragging out the huge dictionary and we discovered that “chaos” can have many definitions. In fact, many words have a specialized meaning in science contexts that is quite different than their meaning in everyday use. 

Often students and teachers begin looking for an answer to question like, “what does chaos mean?” by searching the Internet.  They often find a multitude of sources of information. For example, Google yields 169,000,000 results in answer to the question. Most of us would say that’s too much information, yet still find 22,400,000 results in answer to what we thought was a more scientific question, “what is chaos theory?” Refining the search to “what is chaos theory in science” we get only 10,200,000 hits–noticing, by the way, that there is “chaos theory” in specific reference to nursing, psychology, leadership, and business, too! Some know to search Google Scholar and can narrow down the citations to 1,220,000. Searching just for abstracts of articles added in 2013, only 108 results appear! (Since I love Googling and I love numbers, please excuse my not editing out most of this paragraph!)

In all this Googling one may come upon an online course, “What Is Chaos?” by Dr. Matthew A. Trump of the Ilya Prigogine Center for Studies in Statistical Mechanics and Complex Systems at the University of Texas, Austin. In the introduction to his course Dr. Trump promises, “a useful and entertaining way to learn about one of the most exciting topics in physical science.” He goes on to say that in physics, chaos is a word with a specialized meaning that differs from that of the everyday use of the word. Hence, this is a great example of the problem with scientific words.

When a teacher declares that she cannot endure chaos in her classroom, what does she mean? Is she referring to the character in mythology? Does she mean a type of giant amoeba or a Trans-Neptunian Kuiper belt object? Or, it might simply be the state of general disorder and confusion that exists with 30 to 40 students in a room designed to house only 20.

What about meaning of “chaos” in the realm of science? The following is gleaned from the website “Chaos and Fractals” in response to the question, “What Is Chaos?”

In everyday language “chaos” implies the existence of unpredictable or random behavior. The word usually carries a negative connotation involving undesirable disorganization or confusion. However, in the scientific realm this unpredictable behavior is not necessarily undesirable. The scientific meaning of chaos can be summed up in the following statement:

“Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” – Henry Adams

Chaos is indeterminism at its best — a concept totally foreign and unwelcome in Laplace’s world (see Laplace’s Demon). The scientific usage of the word was first coined by Yorke and Li in their ground breaking paper, “Period Three Implies Chaos (1975),” in which they described particular flows as chaotic.

In short, chaos embodies three important principles:

  • extreme sensitivity to initial conditions
  • cause and effect are not proportional (!)
  • nonlinearity

“Laplace’s Demon” concerns the idea of determinism, namely the belief that the past completely determines the future.  The world of science used to define the universe in this way. Now things are more chaotic. If the interplay between determinism and indeterminism is just too much to bear consider this:

Simply put, “chaos is the science of surprises.” http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/(link no longer active)

I think I am going to tell my granddaughters this definition of “chaos” because they have been given the idea that science is about making predictions and trying to find out if they are correct. I hope they can learn that science is less about being correct and more about finding out. The teacher who cannot stand chaos may be referring to the state of his classroom, or to the surprises of science, or, in a few years, to that new student named Chaos.

Written by David Pummill

David Pummill

David Pummill is a retired California science teacher and CSTA’s Region 1 Director.

One Response

  1. Thank you for the well written article! I particularly like the concluding definition: “Chaos is the science of surprises”. What a positive way of looking at this aspect of our richly complex world!

Leave a Reply

LATEST POST

CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or zi@cascience.org.)

New Information Now Available On-line:

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 2017)

Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.