Chaos : making a new science

by James Gleick

Hardcover, 1987




New York : Viking, 1987.


The "highly entertaining" New York Times bestseller, which explains chaos theory and the butterfly effect, from the author of The Information (Chicago Tribune). For centuries, scientific thought was focused on bringing order to the natural world. But even as relativity and quantum mechanics undermined that rigid certainty in the first half of the twentieth century, the scientific community clung to the idea that any system, no matter how complex, could be reduced to a simple pattern. In the 1960s, a small group of radical thinkers began to take that notion apart, placing new importance on the tiny experimental irregularities that scientists had long learned to ignore. Miniscule differences in data, they said, would eventually produce massive ones--and complex systems like the weather, economics, and human behavior suddenly became clearer and more beautiful than they had ever been before. In this seminal work of scientific writing, James Gleick lays out a cutting edge field of science with enough grace and precision that any reader will be able to grasp the science behind the beautiful complexity of the world around us. With more than a million copies sold, Chaos is "a groundbreaking book about what seems to be the future of physics" by a writer who has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the author of Time Travel: A History and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Publishers Weekly).… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member PointedPundit
Well-Written; could have Employed a Little More Math

Few writers write clearly and concisely about science and Mathematics. James Gleick, a former science writer for the New York Times, writes about the first years of the study of chaos.

Focusing on scientists rather than science, Gleick explains
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the thought processes and investigative techniques researchers applied to chaos problems. Rather than attempt to explain Julia sets, Lorenz attractors, and the Mandelbrot Set with complicated equations, Chaos employs sketches, photographs, and descriptive prose.

There are not many writers who have the ability to write on two planes. One is understandable by the general public. The other is appreciated by experts who grasp the subject matter and appreciate the author’s depth of understanding. I am not one of the latter. While reading the book, I found myself long for math that would connect the prose to the science.

Nevertheless, this book is a history of a new science. Limited as it is, it inspired me to further study. It is probably asking too much to expect more from a book about science’s frontiers.
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LibraryThing member FlyByPC
One of my all-time favorite books -- and the one that got me interested in dynamical systems. This would make the short list of books I would want along if stranded on the proverbial desert island. Gleick not only does an outstanding job of describing chaos (in the sense of sensitivity to initial
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conditions), but inspires readers to experiment. Reading this book while playing around with the ideas it inspires using your favorite programming language is a fun way to pass the time. (Try programming a model of the waterwheel and graphing its velocity!) Very, very highly recommended if you've ever had the slightest interest in science, math, or computers.
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LibraryThing member daschaich
Achieves its goal - even after 18 years: When I first picked up Gleick's "Chaos" I was a little skeptical - could a book written in 1987 still work as an introduction to chaos and nonlinear dynamics, a field that has been evolving rapidly for the past eighteen years? Well, in a certain sense, it
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turns out it can.

The truth is that the focus of Gleick's book is not so much chaos itself as it is the people who first explored chaos theory and eventually managed to make it respectable and bring it into the mainstream. As the book's subtitle hints, Gleick is concerned mainly with how a 'new science' is 'made', not necessarily with the actual science or math involved. This was not quite what I was expecting from "Chaos", but it is actually an advantage for the book, since its age becomes somewhat irrelevant: although chaos theory itself has been growing and evolving dramatically in recent decades, "Chaos" deals only with its roots in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. On the other hand, I was hoping for more discussion of the science itself, rather than the personalities involved in its early development.

I was also not that taken with the style of Gleick's writing. His narrative tends to jump around rapidly, often spending only a few pages on some person or event before moving on to another, commonly with little in the way of connection or logical transition. This is fine for short articles in newspapers and magazines, but it doesn't work so well in a 300+ page book. The vast cast of characters (meteorologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, biologists, ecologists and many others) spins in and out of view, and it can be very difficult to get more than a general impression how the little pieces all fit together in the big picture.

However, even though I'm complaining about the content and presentation, I'm still giving "Chaos" four stars. This is because "Chaos" managed to get me interested in and excited about nonlinear dynamics. Gleick was able to convey the sense of wonder and excitement that comes from looking at nature in a new way, through the lens of nonlinearity. He successfully presented the making of this new science as the greatest and most exciting scientific revolution since the development of quantum mechanics - with the difference that chaos is more accessible, more understandable, and applicable in a far wider range of fields.

In short, "Chaos" still achieves its goal 18 years after it was written. It gets the reader (this reader, at least) interested in and excited about nonlinear dynamics and eager to explore the topic in greater depth. Reading Gleick's book inspired me to pick up a copy of Robert Hilborn's "Chaos and Nonlinear Dynamics" from the library and take a more serious look at the science itself. "Chaos" should make a good read for anyone who knows little or nothing about chaos or nonlinear dynamics but is curious about the topic and interested in learning a bit about its early development.
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LibraryThing member duanewilliams
Chaos: Making a New Science is about a variety of topics: the sensitivity of some systems to their initial conditions, the weather being a prime example, which makes detailed long-term forecasting impossible; nonlinear systems; fractals; strange attractors; dynamical systems; etc. It is also about
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the people who discovered and studied these phenomena. It describes their difficulties in introducing these ideas into the scientific community. That's not an unusual situation in science. Einstein's special theory of relativity, for example, despite it's mathematical simplicity and fit with evidence, was not readily accepted.

Gleick sometimes strays a bit from his topic, as when he briefly talks about Darwinian thinking in biology. He writes, "In biology, however, Darwin firmly established teleology as the central mode of thinking about cause. [...] Natural selection operates not on genes or embryos, but on the final product. [...] Final cause survives in science wherever Darwinian thinking has become habitual." (se p. 201 in the original hardback edition) I don't know where he got his information, but he got it wrong. Darwinian evolution through natural selection is not teleological. In What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr writes, "... those who adopt teleological thinking will argue that progress is due to a built-in drive or striving toward perfection. Darwin rejected such a causation and so do modern Darwinians ..." In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett writes, "The theory of natural selection shows how ever feature of the natural world can be the product of a blind, unforesightful, nonteleological, ultimately mechanical process of differential reproduction over long periods of time." The nonteleological nature of Darwinian evolution is one of the principle themes of Dennett's book.

Chaos is a long book about somewhat difficult ideas, mostly of a mathematical nature, but the mathematics is largely suppressed. One important point that I think he makes very clear is that very simple equations when iterated in real space can exhibit surprising behavior.

The topics of this book are mostly outside my areas of even limited expertise, but I was wondering as I read it how many of the phenomena it describes depend on the use of real numbers, i.e., numbers that in general require infinite precision, e.g. π. If physical theories were to be developed on the basis of discrete mathematics, would some of these problems of chaos disappear? Consider the very first topic in the book: the sensitivity of weather models to initial conditions. With limited precision measuring instruments there are infinitely many states of the weather, if described by real numbers, that cannot be distinguished. So, if small differences, below the precision of measurement, can make a big difference as the weather develops, we have a problem that limits predictability. But, if the physics of weather were described by a mathematics with finite precision, then we might be able to make completely accurate measurements of initial conditions—in principle.

I found Chaos interesting to read, but I am always skeptical about reading explanations of science written by journalists, just as I am skeptical of explanations of science written by philosophers.
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LibraryThing member marinam713
An exhilarating read. Understanding variation, adaptability, and the overall beauty of our physical systems has never been this much fun to read about. Literally walked me through my own thesis. Absolutely brilliant!
LibraryThing member justine
The fundamental book on chaos science for the popular audience.
LibraryThing member boeflak
I won't pretend I understood all of it. But it's written in a way so that anyone can understand much of it -- and every step on the journey is fascinating.
LibraryThing member lunaverse
This book on complexity theory explains chaos concepts through the history of the discoveries. You not only learn about Strange Attractors and Bifrication, but also about the men who first coined these terms, and the conditions under which the discoveries were made. Fewer pictures than Turbulent
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Mirror, but if you're going to read two or more books on Chaos Theory, this should be one of them.
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LibraryThing member theportal2002
Although the book slowed down in spots it still was very exciting. I loved reading about how non linear systems or Chaos slowly emerged to change the face of many disciplines today. Being a consultant it makes me take a fresh look at the way I view and interpret data looking for strange attractors
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and other things.

It was very interesting to see how many of the pioneers of this new science had no mentors or support within their communities. As a matter of fact many of them were warned that studying a new discipline would not bode well for their careers.
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LibraryThing member co_coyote
I recommended this book to my son, the incipient neurobiologist, this fall and he had the same reaction to it I did: is it too late to become a mathematician? In my case, alas, the answer is obviously yes, but there is still hope for him. Anyone who can write this well and compellingly about a
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subject I don't even think I am interested in all that much is to be enormously commended.
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LibraryThing member yapete
By now a classic. This book got me into Chaos theory big time. I was even on the way to making it my thesis topic, but got seduced by the dark side... (experimental physics). Great read; what a science book should be.
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
I found this a fairly good introduction to chaos. It was well written and easy to understand, like a popular science book should be. A non scientist would have easily understood most of it, and would probably find most of it interesting too. The book might have benefited by having sections which
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had more detail, a bit more maths, as there is little technical information at all in this book. The book goes on about all the scientists and their stories, which played a part in the developments in the field of chaos. The author made sure it was kept interesting, and I imagine most readers would find the book genuinely interesting, as well as finishing with a better understanding of the topic. Those involved in the field of science should appreciate the book, as chaos can be found in many of the serious disciplines such as biology, physics, maths, and chemistry. It was also interesting to learn how chaos forms amazingly complex patterns from seemingly random things, if you know how to analyze them.
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LibraryThing member raindiva1
My favorite chaos book. Interesting and informative. Perfectly readable for a layperson or a scientist.
LibraryThing member TheBentley
Very interesting, but not as well-written or as accessible as "Faster." Personally, I could have done with more concept and less profiling of the individual personalities involved.
LibraryThing member JohnSherman
Can one measure disorder or randomness in a closed system like business research? Can can one or a set of preconceived notions about an expected outcome effect that outcome? Cosmologists like Stephen Hawkins has pondered if the universe is ruled by entropy, creating greater and greater disorder,
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how does order arise?
My question, is in which ways can a marketing plan, which hinges on a pre-set aims of say competitive analysis be so far different that its results lead some companies to ruin, and others successful beyond their orginal projections.
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LibraryThing member Scott_Morris
Great Book. I read it to get a base on the 'new science' and how it was affecting thought and organization development. It's written in an easy yet engaging way, and I felt like I was reading a novel. Push my thinking through worm holes I didn't know existed and continues to challenge me. Is
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smeinal in my understanding of God, Church, and relationships.
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LibraryThing member zezethex
James Gleick's early history of the science of chaos is a thorough and personal account compiled from hours of interviews, articles and lectures. Chaos is perhaps a somewhat controversial term in science and perhaps is better described as complexity forming out of simplicity or self-organizion
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emerging from apparent randomness. The simple, mechanistic way of viewing the world as deterministic, static and linear no longer holds water. In other words, systems are not clocklike machines destined to run down into a lifeless eternity, but rather evolve through time into more beautiful and complex patterns. At what point does a chemical feedback loop cease to become "mere chemicals" and become alive? Time can be viewed as a process, rather than a series of intervals. Gleick, for the most part, stays away from couching philosophical questions and rather lets the reader ask for themselves. This book is a fantastic introduction for those with the patience for scientific terms and interest in scientific history. For the less scientifically inclined a more general, great introduction on the subject is a book called the Turbulent Mirror, by John Briggs and F. David Peat.
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LibraryThing member hcubic
A very influential book, which brought the ideas of deterministic chaos to public notice. A best-seller for awhile.
LibraryThing member pjane
I'm not a scientist, but I found this book both readable and fascinating. Gleick delves deep into some pretty abstruse subjects, but he keeps his finger on the human stories behind them and drives his history forward. Recommended.
LibraryThing member Czrbr
Book Description: Penguin (Non-Classics), 1988. Paperback. Brand New Book.
LibraryThing member fegolac
Like Entangled Life, it took me a while to finish this because it encompasses so many different fields that I'd stop all the time to check references. This is not a criticism of the book, though: James Gleick describes how scientists in areas as disparate as meteorology and the study of cardiac
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arrhythmia were able to make an impact by showing simple chaotic models that reproduce features of very real systems which were previously thought to be too random to understand. I find that pretty amazing.

While I'd have preferred a slightly more technical book, I've found that Gleick is really good at making layman explanations without being condescending. He also interviewed a lot of people and out of it he made a really compelling story of how the field developed. I particularly liked how he highlights the massive resistance the first people who studied chaos encountered. Nonlinear systems have historically been (and still are to this day) something of a footnote because analytic treatment of them is impossible, which makes theoretical scientists unenthusiastic. And the more practical scientists are also unlikely to be receptive because incorporating a dynamic systems approach to their study requires interdisciplinary work.
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
Chaos was all the rage when I read Gleick's book. It's just part of the zeitgeist now.
LibraryThing member Paul_S
Not enough science in this history of science book.
LibraryThing member nmele
I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I had read it 30 years ago, closer to when it was written. For one thing, I am 30 years older and my brain that much slower; for another, Gleick's book functions best as a history and it is disappointing that the story ended 33 years ago. Actually, i
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know the story didn't end, but I read the 1987 edition and I know there have been more developments in all the areas Gleick covered back then.
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LibraryThing member LisCarey
This book, over two decades old now, is one of the great classics of science popularization. It was a blockbuster bestseller at the time, and it's still well worth reading, a fascinating, enjoyable introduction to one of the most important scientific developments of our time--the birth of chaos
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One of the compelling features of the chaos story is that this scientific breakthrough wasn't a physics, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, or biology breakthrough; it was all of them. A mathematician turned meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, builds a "toy weather" on what's still a fairly early computer in the early 1960s, and in working with the parameters, concludes that long-term weather forecasting is doomed--a simple deterministic system is producing unpredictable results. Mitchell Feigenbaum, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos in the early seventies, and two other scientists working together independently of him, are working on the problem of turbulence that it doesn't, as anticipated, build up gradually in an orderly manner. Reach the tipping point, and there it is.
Beloit Mandelbrot, an IBM mathematician working with an equation that produces fractals, arrives to give a presentation to an economics class and finds "his" equation already on the board; the patterns he's found in pure path also apply in economics, the reproductive rates and numbers of animal populations, and countless other places.

In each field, also, the initial work was most often either resisted or ignored. Precisely because chaos was popping up all over, with just a few people in each of many different scientific fields, it was easy for scientists in any field to notice a paper or presentation, note the fact that is was completely different from the methods, logic, math that had relevance for their own work, that much of the work was in fact being done in other fields--and dismiss it. For new doctoral students, there were no mentors in chaos theory, no jobs, no journals devoted to chaos theory. It completely upended ideas about how the natural world worked. It was heady, exciting--and much harder to explain than to demonstrate. Much of what the first generation of chaos scientists did is incredibly easy to demonstrate with a laptop computer today--but most of these chaos pioneers were working with handheld calculators, mainframe computers with dump terminals and limited and unreliable access for something so peripheral to the institution's perceived mission, computers whose only output device was a plotter.

Gleick very effectively conveys the science, the excitement the early scientists working on it felt, and the challenges that faced them.

Highly recommended.
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National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 1987)
Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — General Non-Fiction — 1988)



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