|"An awe-inspiring book. Reading it gave me that sensation that someone had just found the light switch." —Douglas Adams"This is a stunning work, a deeply exciting subject in the hands of a first-rate science writer. The implications of the research James Gleick sets forth are breathtaking."-Barry Lopez|
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"Gleick's Chaos is not only enthralling and precise, but full of beautifully strange and strangely beautiful ideas."-Douglas Hofstadter"I was caught up and swept along by the flow of this astonishing chronicle of scientific thought. It has been a long, long time since I finished a book and immediately started reading it all over again for sheer pleasure.-Lewis Thomas
|From the Prologue:|
The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling in the dark, night after night, 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.
In the three decades since J. Robert Oppenheimer chose this unworldly New Mexico landscape for the atomic bomb project, Los Alamos National Laboratory had spread across an expanse of desolate plateau, bringing particle accelerators and gas lasers and chemical plants, thousands of scientists and administrators and technicians, as well as one of the world's greatest concentrations of supercomputers. Some of the older scientists remembered the wooden buildings rising hastily out of the rimrock in the 1940s, but to most of the Los Alamos staff, young men and women in college-style corduroys and work shirts, the first bombmakers were just ghosts. The laboratory's locus of purest thought was the Theoretical Division, known as T division, just as computing was C division and weapons was X division. More than a hundred physicists and mathematicians worked in T division, well paid and free of academic pressures to teach and publish. These scientists had experience with brilliance and with eccentricity. They were hard to surprise.
But Mitchell Feigenbaum was an unusual case. He had exactly one published article to his name, and he was working on nothing that seemed to have any particular promise. His hair was a ragged mane, sweeping back from his wide brow in the style of busts of German composers. His eyes were sudden and passionate. When he spoke, always rapidly, he tended to drop articles and pronouns in a vaguely middle European way, even though he was a native of Brooklyn. When he worked, he worked obsessively. When he could not work, he walked and thought, day or night, and night was best of all. The twenty-four-hour day seemed too constraining. Nevertheless, his experiment in personal quasiperiodicity came to an end when he decided he could no longer bear waking to the setting sun, as had to happen every few days.
At the age of twenty-nine he had already become a savant among the savants, an ad hoc consultant whom scientists would go to see about any especially intractable problem, when they could find him. One evening he arrived at work just as the director of the laboratory, Harold Agnew, was leaving. Agnew was a powerful figure, one of the original Oppenheimer apprentices. He had flown over Hiroshima on an instrument plane that accompanied the Enola Gay, photographing the delivery of the laboratory's first product.
"I understand you're real smart," Agnew said to Feigenbaum. "If you're so smart, why don't you just solve laser fusion?"
Even Feigenbaum's friends were wondering whether he was ever going to produce any work of his own. As willing as he was to do impromptu magic with their questions, he did not seem interested in devoting his own research to any problem that might pay off. He thought about turbulence in liquids and gases. He thought about time--did it glide smoothly forward or hop discretely like a sequence of cosmic motion-picture frames? He thought about the eye's ability to see consistent colors and forms in a universe that physicists knew to be a shifting quantum kaleidoscope. He thought about clouds, watching them from airplane windows (until, in 1975, his scientific travel privileges were officially suspended on grounds of overuse) or from the hiking trails above the laboratory.
In the mountain towns of the West, clouds barely resemble the sooty indeterminate low-flying hazes that fill the Eastern air. At Los Alamos, in the lee of a great volcanic caldera, the clouds spill across the sky, in random formation, yes, but also not-random, standing in uniform spikes or rolling in regularly furrowed patterns like brain matter. On a stormy afternoon, when the sky shimmers and trembles with the electricity to come, the clouds stand out from thirty miles away, filtering the light and reflecting it, until the whole sky starts to seem like a spectacle staged as a subtle reproach to physicists. Clouds represented a side of nature that the mainstream of physics had passed by, a side that was at once fuzzy and detailed, structured and unpredictable. Feigenbaum thought about such things, quietly and unproductively.
To a physicist, creating laser fusion was a legitimate problem; puzzling out the spin and color and flavor of small particles was a legitimate problem; dating the origin of the universe was a legitimate problem. Understanding clouds was a problem for a meteorologist. Like other physicists, Feigenbaum used an understated, tough-guy vocabulary to rate such problems. Such a thing is obvious, he might say, meaning that a result could be understood by any skilled physicist after appropriate contemplation and calculation. Not obvious described work that commanded respect and Nobel prizes. For the hardest problems, the problems that would not give way without long looks into the universe's bowels, physicists reserved words like deep. In 1974, though few of his colleagues knew it, Feigenbaum was working on a problem that was deep: chaos.
Where chaos begins, classical science stops. For as long as the world has had physicists inquiring into the laws of nature, it has suffered a special ignorance about disorder in the atmosphere, in the turbulent sea, in the fluctuations of wildlife populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain. The irregular side of nature, the discontinuous and erratic side---these have been puzzles to science, or worse, monstrosities.
But in the 1970s a few scientists in the United States and Europe began to find a way through disorder. They were mathematicians, physicists, biologists, chemists, all seeking connections between different kinds of irregularity. Physiologists found a surprising order in the chaos that develops in the human heart, the prime cause of sudden, unexplained death. Ecologists explored the rise and fall of gypsy moth populations. Economists dug out old stock price data and tried a new kind of analysis. The insights that emerged led directly into the natural world---the shapes of clouds, the paths of lightning, the microscopic intertwining of blood vessels, the galactic clustering of stars.
Now that science is looking, chaos seems to be everywhere. A rising column of cigarette smoke breaks into wild swirls. A flag snaps back and forth in the wind. A dripping faucet goes from a steady pattern to a random one. Chaos appears in the behavior of the weather, the behavior of an airplane in flight, the behavior of cars clustering on an expressway, the behavior of oil flowing in underground pipes. No matter what the medium, the behavior obeys the same newly discovered laws. That realization has begun to change the way business executives make decisions about insurance, the way astronomers look at the solar system, the way political theorists talk about the stresses leading to armed conflict.
Chaos breaks across the lines that separate scientific disciplines. Because it is a science of the global nature of systems, it has brought together thinkers from fields that had been widely separated. Chaos poses problems that defy accepted ways of working in science. It makes strong claims about the universal behavior of complexity. The first chaos theorists, the scientists who set the discipline in motion, shared certain sensibilities. They had an eye for pattern, especially pattern that appeared on different scales at the same time. They had a taste for randomness and complexity, for jagged edges and sudden leaps. Believers in chaos--and they sometimes call themselves believers, or converts, or evangelists--speculate about determinism and free will, about evolution, about the nature of conscious intelligence. They feel that they are turning back a trend in science toward reductionism, the analysis of systems in terms of their constituent parts: quarks, chromosomes, or neurons. They believe that they are looking for the whole.