Chaos Theory

AuthorWendy Mason, Hal Kirkwood

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Chaos theory is a scientific principle describing the unpredictability of systems. Most fully explored and recognized during the mid-to-late 1980s, its premise is that systems sometimes reside in chaos, generating energy but without any predictability or direction. These complex systems may be weather patterns,

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ecosystems, water flows, anatomical functions, or organizations. While these systems's chaotic behavior may appear random at first, chaotic systems can be defined by a mathematical formula, and they are not without order or finite boundaries. This theory, in relation to organizational behavior, was somewhat discounted during the 1990s, giving way to the very similar complexity theory.


One of the first scientists to comment on chaos was Henri Poincaré(1854–1912), a late-nineteenth century French mathematician who extensively studied topology and dynamic systems. He left writings hinting at the same unpredictability in systems that Edward Lorenz (b. 1917) would study more than half a century later. Poincaré explained, "It may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible." Unfortunately, the study of dynamic systems was largely ignored long after Poincaré's death.

During the early 1960s, a few scientists from various disciplines were again taking note of "odd behavior" in complex systems such as the earth's atmosphere and the human brain. One of these scientists was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was experimenting with computational models of the atmosphere. In the process of his experimentation he discovered one of chaos theory's fundamental principles—the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect is named for its assertion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can impact weather patterns in Chicago. More scientifically, the Butterfly Effect proves that forces governing weather formation are unstable. These unstable forces allow minuscule changes in the atmosphere to have major impact elsewhere. More broadly applied, the Butterfly Effect means that what may appear to be insignificant changes to small parts of a system can have exponentially larger effects on that system. It also helps to dispel the notion that random system activity and disturbances must be due to external influences, and not the result of minor fluctuations within the system itself.

Another major contributor to chaos theory is Mitchell Feigenbaum (b. 1944). A physicist at the theoretical division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory starting in 1974, Feigenbaum dedicated much of his time researching chaos and trying to build mathematical formulas that might be used to explain the phenomenon Others working on related ideas (though in different disciplines) include a Berkeley, California mathematician who formed a group to study "dynamical systems" and a population biologist pushing to study strangely-complex behavior in simple biological models. During the 1970s, these scientists and others in the United States and Europe began to see beyond what appeared to be random disorder in nature (the atmosphere, wildlife populations, etc.), finding connections in erratic behavior. As recounted by James Gleick (b.1954) in Chaos, a French mathematical physicist had just made the disputable claim that turbulence in fluids might have something to do with a bizarre, infinitely-tangled abstraction he termed a "strange attractor." Stephen Smale (b. 1930), at the University of California, Berkeley...

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