The following story ran in the Orange County Register on August 4, 2011:
At Chapman University, It’s Chaos
August 4th, 2011, 4:18 pm · posted by Pat Brennan, science, environment editor
The “butterfly effect” flapped its way briefly into popular culture with the help of Jeff Goldblum in “Jurassic Park,” who explains it to a rapt Laura Dern just before the dinosaurs run amok.
Since then, however, the idea behind it, called chaos theory, has suffered its own near extinction, at least in terms of trendy science chatter.
It might be a case of overhyped expectations, said Chapman University psychology professor David Pincus, who is hosting a conference on chaos theory on the campus Thursday, Friday and Saturday that is expected to draw some 80 researchers from nine countries.
The theory describes systems that are fully determined ahead of time, and yet evolve in ways that are completely unpredictable. The shorthand illustration is the flapping of a butterfly’s wings setting off a chain of events that result in a hurricane — in other words, complex systems whose outcome is extremely sensitive to initial conditions.
But within those patterns, some saw the potential for better forecasting of how complex system change.
Popularized by author James Gleick in his 1987 book, “Chaos: Making a New Science,” the theory led some to believe it was just a matter of time before we could make pinpoint accurate predictions for systems like the weather, or the stock market.
When that didn’t happen, the theory’s popular fortunes sagged.
But Pincus says the theory is alive and well — and has proven highly useful in a variety of fields, including psychology and life sciences.
Q. How do you explain chaos theory to us lay people?
A. It’s a mathematical theory, first of all, and the essential gist is that you can have a relatively simple set of equations that produce what appears to be — what actually is — unpredictable output. What produces these apparently random patterns is completely known and determined. You can write them in an equation.
If you get lots and lots of data and look at these patterns over a long length of time, what you find is that there’s an underlying order to them. That order is called, technically, an attractor.
Q. A lot of people remember chaos theory from Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum talked about it.
A. Goldblum talked about bifurcatings, when he rolls water on the back of (Laura Dern’s) hand — how it’s unpredictable. It’s a pretty rudimentary description. It’s a movie.
Q. Chaos theory seemed to bubble up into popular culture, then recede. Was it because the theory didn’t do what it was supposed to do? Or did people get bored and turn to something else?
A. I think it was both. More than anything else, it’s an emerging paradigm. There was an initial burst. There will be a re-burst. Chaos theory is in some respects a mathematical abstraction. When you get into the real world, what at the end you find more is complexity theory. It’s sort of the opposite of chaos theory.
Chaos theory is some simplified, deterministic equations with sporadic, wild output. Complexity theory, with many, many manipulations, produces more orderly output. Self organization is a good buzz word. So that seems to be a bit more useful than chaos theory. So does catastrophe theory, and bifurcations — cousins of chaos, other kinds of non-linear dynamics.
You’ve got a lot of different disciplines working on a lot of different problems for only about 30 years, using a lot of different tools. You’ve got an evolving paradigm in science.
Q. Is it a situation where people thought they were going to predict the weather and the stock market, and it didn’t turn out that way?
A. There probably was some of that. I know of at least one person who tried to figure out a stock algorithm. The problem with chaos theory is, things are still unpredictable. Probably some people, like people do — it’s human nature — were dancing around the butterfly, trying to make it rain. People get very excited. There’s still a streak of modernism: people think science is going to save us in one, big, fell swoop. And then there’s the rest of us, hanging in there, grinding it out.
Q. Despite chaos theory’s downturn in the popular culture, it sounds like you and your colleagues have found some use for it.
A. And it’s growing by leaps and bounds.
Q. Can you boil down the usefulness of chaos theory in psychology to a sentence?
A. I can understand the actual structure of a personality. I can look at how it is shaped. It’s like an X-ray of the personality. This has broad significance. Essentially what you’ve got is the principle of adapatation in nature. Where it is most useful is in living systems. They are organized on their own, and the way in which they are organized has functional significance.
Q. Sounds like chaos is alive and well, despite what people might think.
A. Oh, completely. And it’s rigorous. It’s really important for people to realize that this is not flaky stuff.