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Q & A: chaos

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Most recent answer: 10/17/2010
Q:
What Is The New Science Of Chaos?
- Arbill Angelo I. Sumague (age 12)
St. Mary
A:
Many systems which obey very simple rules show very complex behavior. Think of a bunch of billiard balls bouncing around hitting each other. The patterns get very complicated even if it starts with something simple- just one ball moving. What's more, it soon becomes impossible to predict just which way each ball will go. The reason is that if you have just a tiny bit of uncertainty about which way the initial ball is going, you will be even more unsure about the directions after the first collision, since those directions depend on just where the first ball hits. Then you'll know even less what to expect after the second collision, etc. That's what's called chaos.

Effects like that have been well known for a long time. They've been studied in detail recently, partly because modern computers allow us to calculate how they behave. That stimulated other mathematical and experimental work on chaotic systems. So you can call this a new science.

Mike W.


(published on 06/02/2008)

Follow-Up #1: Chaos, the Movie

Q:
I've recently watched a movie called "Chaos". Does this movie explain anything about this new science? In other words, will watching this movie give me a reliable background about the chaos science? The website is really great!! Thanks!
- Marie (age 17)
Kafr esh-Shaikh, Egypt
A:
Marie- I really wish I could answer that, but I haven't seen the movie. We'll update this answer if one of us gets a chance to see it.

Meanwhile, James Gleick's book "Chaos" is not a bad introduction to the area. In my opinion, he exaggerates how new and important the ideas of chaos are, but still he gets most of the science right.

Mike W.

(published on 04/13/2009)

Follow-Up #2: why study chaos?

Q:
What would be the uses of studying chaos? Is there any practicality in predicting the motion of molecules? Sorry if this sounded cynical, it's really based on pure curiosity :P
- Dan (age 16)
Connecticut
A:
Chaotic behavior is quite common in dynamical system, such as various driven mechanical systems, including for example a washing machine vibrating out of control. It's not particularly more relevant to little things like molecules than to such big things. One reason to study it is to figure out how to avoid or control the chaos.

Mike W.

(published on 10/17/2010)

Follow-up on this answer.