In ordinary life chaos means disorder – random, disorganised confusion. In science it means something entirely different – it means apparent randomness. In other words, things that appear to be random and disorganised but actually obey an order that we either can’t see or don’t understand.
The physicist, David Bohm believed everything was governed by a hidden – or as he termed it – implicate – order. He demonstrated this using a very simple but graphic experiment copied from a BBC Children’s TV programme.
Take a vessel composed of two glass cylinders, put glycerine (or other viscous fluid) in the space between the cylinders, then put a drop of insoluble ink into the glycerine and turn the outer cylinder. As the cylinder turns, the ink is drawn out into a thread that eventually becomes so thin it disappears from view as it is enfolded in the solution.
But if the cylinder is then turned in the opposite direction, the thread form reappears and retraces its steps until the original droplet is reconstituted.
Bohm offered this as a visual example of how order exists even when it is hidden and not obvious to us.
But David Bohm is far from the only scientist to suggest that the seeming ‘chaos’ that surrounds us may not be as haphazard as it appears.
In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz, a MIT meteorologist and the originator of the Butterfly Effect theory, tried to explore why it is so hard to make good weather forecasts and as a result chaos theory was born. Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behaviour in the mathematical modelling of weather systems.
Soon, many other scientists – including social scientists – were attempting to use chaos theory to search for the hidden order in everything.
Nowadays, chaos theory (and it’s offspring, complexity theory) provides us with models we can apply to everything from epilepsy to social problems.
So, organised chaos is not a contradiction after all – who knew?
For an interesting interview with David Bohm see More About…
- Judge Perry: The Chaos Theorist? (andreadreamin.com)
- Chaos radar uses messy signals to see through walls (newscientist.com)
- Thought of the Week – 8.8.2011 (inspirationalperspective.com)
- How Chaos Really Works [Video] (gizmodo.com)
- Dynamic Systems (herdingcats.typepad.com)
- Chaotic systems and randomness (tamino.wordpress.com)