Thursday, July 13, 2006

Notes on chaos

This post is a pretty random group of reactions to the ideas of chaos theory presented in James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (1987).

According to previous understandings of nature, “Simple systems behave in simple ways. . . . Complex behavior implies complex causes. . . . Different systems behave differently” (303). However, chaos theory argues that “Simple systems give rise to complex behavior. Complex systems give rise to simple behavior. And most important, the laws of complexity hold universally, caring not at all for the details of a system’s constituent atoms” (304).

fractalThis theory suggests that commonly held assumptions about the behavior of the world are flawed. Natural systems do not exhibit simple, linear behavior. They do, however, exhibit patterns, but these patterns are often fractal, that is, they exhibit constant change and transformation at all scales and cannot be boiled down to simple geometric shapes. An example would be the contrast between a triangle, which only gives information at one scale, and a fractal image, which exhibits more information no matter what scale you look at.

“Libchaber believed that biological systems used their nonlinearity as a defense against noise. The transfer of energy by proteins, the wave motion of the heart's electricity, the nervous system—all these kept their versatility in a noisy world.” (194).

This is an interesting observation, since most communication deals at some level with the problem of overcoming noise, that is, barriers that prevent a clear understanding of the message. This phenomenon presents itself in nature as well as in language. Proposing non-linearity, the ability of seemingly chaotic systems to generate order, as a means of overcoming noise deserves more attention in studies of communication.

“the spontaneous emergence of self-organization ought to be part of physics” (252).

And everything else, I would say. The question of order pops up in a lot of scientific literature; attempting to find the answer to it is one of the things that attracts me to chaos and complexity theory. Most analytic effort is spent trying to explain the nature of order, but only recently has the origin of order taken the forefront in scientific questioning.


Jiki Sen Peg Syverson said...

Yes, the interesting thing to me is that no one is talking about chaos theory any more, because it was overtaken by complexity theory. As I pointed out, back when the book first came out, it was not really talking about chaos, since it was positing that there were patterns in the phenomena they were talking about; despite the fact that those patterns were not following conventional geometries. Chaos is, well, chaos: the term means without order. Patterns of any kind shift you into another realm, so the term complexity theory is much more appropriate.

Jiki Sen Peg Syverson said...

Also, you probably would enjoy reading the blog posts of Jacob Lieberman, who is also doing an independent study along similar lines this summer, reading some different texts and some that you are reading. Here is his blog URL:

plieb said...


I like the idea that chaotic systems have potential to aid communication.

Perhaps, in some cases, noise actualizes this potential?

Although humans dont respond to stimuli in a binary fashion, we have a minimum neuronal activation threshold that must be crossed in order to generate responses. The speed and intensity of neuronal activation is directly related to the intensity of the stimulus.

Counterintuitively, noise can boost a weak signal above the activation threshold. This is called stochastic resonance.

If we extend this phenonmenon to communication, than perhaps we can distinguish between "bad" noise that must be overcome, and "good" noise that acts as the organizing force you describe.

Can stochastic rsonance be described in terms of chaos theory?

OReilly Mind Hacks 33 and 52 describe stochastic resonance greater detail.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this post. Sorry about all the "bad" noise in my writing. 8)

Cheers, Plieb