Chaos Theory

What is chaos theory and what's it got to do with 450-by-2050?

In a simple sort of way, chaos theory suggests that systems that include a lot of interacting things aren't governed by complex rules. Instead, simple rules and a whole lot of stuff lead to unpredictable, complex results.

Pool is a good example. If you have a cue ball and the eight ball, math can predict where the ball is going to go. Right? Simple system - there's only so many ways the cue ball can strike the eight, and only so many places both of them can go.

But imagine breaking at the start of the game. The cue ball goes and hits the balls, and they all start to ricochet off each other in strange and interesting ways. I don't know enough about pool to know how well professionals can control the result of breaks (and, truth be told, it seems like my friend who is really good usually manages to sink at least one, while I barely ever do), but trying to mathematically predict where each ball will end up will lead to immense frustration.

The second simple thing that chaos theory says is that complexity increases over more time. The more time you give the system, the more interactions there are. Since each interaction has uncertainty in and of itself, and each new arrangement (again, thing of pool balls) depends on what happened before, uncertainty increases dramatically over time. Can you predict the outcome of a pool game based on the break? My experiences in bars tend to say no.

But it gets really complicated when we talk about something like weather, or ecosystems - things that have billions of interacting elements occurring over huge spans of time.

Now, we can talk about low pressure systems, temperature, and storm fronts all we want, but the fact of the matter is that weather prediction is based on observation, not prediction. We can observe a low pressure system that appears to be moving towards us, and figure that that system is large enough that it should hang out. And we can also say that, in the past, a low pressure system like that tends to cause rain.

And yet, the world's greatest super-computer (or, in this day and age, network of super-computers) is totally incapable of calculating exactly how the smoke from a cigarette will twist, turn, and mix with the air in a room - never mind the weather of a planet.

So what's the point?

The point is that we don't know and are very bad at predicting. With the pool balls, we have a chance - we understand the physics of the situation, and it's a very simple and constrained system. But to really talk about chaos, we have to talk about everything - the scratch on the cue ball, the microscopic bumps of the table, even the inebriation of the players - because it all matters. And, given enough time, each of those things are going to affect the outcome, all at the same time.

In terms of science, the idea of chaos changes a lot of notions we have. We can't ever really know what's going to happen - even when it comes to something we believe, like climate change. We have ideas, we think we know generally - but we can't predict it. But just like how we don't know how rising temperatures will affect the climate, we don't know what a loss of species or lower river height will do to an ecosystem. It could be nothing or, over time, it could be everything.

And first and foremost, chaos theory (applied this way, at least) says that we - humans - are a part of the system. What we do affects the world - and what happens to the world affects us. Despite our cities, we still live off the land. It's something we have to remember.

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