January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

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!

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