Saturday, April 17, 2010

Chaos (A Belated Review)

Finally got around to reading James Gleick’s book Chaos, which has sat on my shelf in a succession of houses and apartments I’ve inhabited since I bought the book in 1988, about a year after it came out. [1]
Don’t ask me why I waited so long, but it’s a terrific book. Gleick has a great facility for making abstruse scientific ideas understandable, for putting the evolution of concepts into a coherent continuum of historical and logical development, and for providing insightful glimpses of the social and intellectual context in which science actually advances: the variegated and colorful personalities of scientists, their inner thoughts (covering the wide range from deeply penetrating or utterly mistaken), and the many ways they interact with each other. In addition, I really appreciate his ability to interweave examples from art and science where they can provide mutual illumination of a difficult topic. A particularly delightful example brought Wallace Stevens into a discussion of the work of the French physicist Albert Libchaber, who was performing fundamental studies on the onset of disordered flow (turbulence) inside an elegant experimental system consisting of liquid helium trapped in a rectangular stainless steel convection cell, “about the size of a lemon seed.” Early in this chapter, Gleick invokes Stevens to make a scientific point about the nature of “the abstract, ill-defined, ghostly thing called flow.” [1]

“The universality of shapes, the similarities across scales, the recursive power of flows within flows—all sat just beyond reach of the standard differential-calculus approach to equations of change. But that was not easy to see. Scientific problems are expressed in the available scientific language. So far, the twentieth century’s best expression of Libchaber’s intuition about flow needed the language of poetry. Wallace Stevens, for example, asserted a feeling about the world that stepped ahead of the knowledge available to physicists. He had an uncanny suspicion about flow, how it repeated itself while changing:

‘The flecked river
Which kept flowing and never the same way twice, flowing
Through many places, as if it stood still in one.’

Stevens’ poetry often imparts a vision of tumult in atmosphere and water. It also conveys a faith about the invisible forms that order takes in nature, a belief

‘that, in the shadowless atmosphere,
The knowledge of things lay round but unperceived.’ ” [2]

Later in this passage, about “These experimenters, the ones who pursued chaos most relentlessly, succeeded by refusing to accept any reality that could be frozen motionless.” Gleick continues, “Even Libchaber would not have gone so far as to express it in such terms, but their conception came close to what Stevens felt as an ‘insolid billowing of the solid’:

‘The vigor of glory, a glittering in the veins,
As things emerged and moved and were dissolved,

Either in distance, change or nothingness,
The visible transformations of summer night,

An argentine abstraction approaching form,
And suddenly denying itself away.’ ” [3]

It’s not difficult to figure out why discussions of chaos theory and practice readily evoke affinities and analogies with the visual, sonic, and literary arts; much about the creative process has to do with alternately submitting to and organizing chaos; finding patterns in apparent disorder; observing and analyzing nature (or one’s own thoughts), and discerning previously unsuspected relationships (and inventing new ways to describe them). The relationship between music and mathematics, which underpins the fields of physics and chaos, is well known; nor is it surprising that Mandelbrot patterns are appealing, that depictions of turbulence are staples of the visual arts, or that writers learn to travel knowingly along the contiguous territories of chance and purpose. “Chance seems to us then a good and useful thing, for we discern in it as it were rudiments of organization, of an attempt to arrange our life….” [4]

If you have a decent background in elementary physics and mathematics, and aren’t already acquainted with such terms as “Mandelbrot set”, “fractional dimensions”, and “strange attractors”, but they sound like things you really would like to know about; or if you are a layperson just wanting a glimpse (the pictures are cool!) into the world of “non-linear behavior”, “boundaries of infinite complexity”, and “organized chaos”, this book, even more than two decades since its appearance, is still a good place to start. [5]

[1] James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), pp.195-196. See also footnote [5].

[2] Gleick quoting Wallace Stevens, “This Solitude of Cataracts,” The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 321.

[3] Gleick quoting Wallace Stevens, “Reality Is an Activity in the Most August Imagination,” The Palm at the End of the Mind, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 396.

[4] Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove (C. K. Scott Moncrieff, translator), Remembrance of Things Past [À la Récherche du Temps Perdue/In Search of Lost Time] Volume II (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 293.

[5] Note that there is a more recent edition of the book out since 2008: James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science—20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2008). ISBN: 0143113453.


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