What is the most common phenomenon that binds together a seemingly bitter reality that manifests itself in nearly everything present in the universe? The answer, believe it or not, is chaos. Deep down we all know what chaos is, we have all experienced it and that’s why we despise it. From crowded halls to cluttered rooms to the endless traffic on the roads, chaos has been a most fundamental feature deeply woven into the fabric of our lives. It is not just in our day-to-day experiences, where chaos reigns. This miraculous yet notorious concept has also made its way into the most certain discipline of science as the “theory of chaos”.
While chaos as a feature of human existence has been a cause of concern since time immemorial, its presence in the sciences as a separate area of study is relatively new. From the outset, the prime objective of science has always been about addressing the questions of uncertainty, and uncovering the underlying pattern in what is seemingly disoriented in nature. It was this pursuit of “pattern recognition” that resulted in the blossoming of Newtonian physics along with the belief that mathematics is the ultimate truth capable of generating precise predictions of the future. The universe was assumed to be a mechanical entity operating in accordance with certain unalterable mathematical principles and norms, making order and harmony almost synonymous with reality and existence. This belief, however, was short-lived. The prescient beauty of Newtonian claims of universal order crumbled into nothingness as Einsteinian theories and New Age Physics shook the scientific world. This advent of the new and the bold provided fertile ground for the recognition of “the chaos” hidden in the complexities of the universe.
The concept of chaos was first brought into scientific scrutiny by the French mathematician Henri Poincaré in the 1880’s, during his study of the interaction between the planets, where he noted that even the slightest error or change in the initial conditions can produce enormous consequences in the final phenomenon. Later this took the form of the “butterfly effect” advanced by Edward Lorenz a mathematician and meteorologist in the 1960’s, who in spite of his precise calculations, could not predict the weather accurately. His findings culminated in his famous speech “Does the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set up a tornado in Texas?” This speech was a major breakthrough in the history of chaos, establishing uncertainty to be the only certainty in the world.
The butterfly effect is inherently present everywhere, be it in the uncertainty of weather mechanisms or in the most remarkable episodes of human history. After all, it was a rejected application to the Vienna Academy of Fine Art that caused the Holocaust and the Second World War. While this may sound utterly ridiculous, it is true that the Academy of Fine Arts did reject the application letter of the very infamous dictator, Adolf Hitler, which, as his autobiography Mein Kampf itself tells you, culminated in his anti-Semitic feelings, his enrolment in the German army and much later the Second World War! Imagine how the world would have been had the Academy accepted him. History is replete with examples of how things could have turned out differently if only one tiny event were altered in the slightest way: Had Mughal Emperor Jahangir not been drinking buddies with Sir Thomas Roe―an emissary from England―the East India Company might never really have gained a true foothold in India. The very fact that you are reading this article right now makes the world function in a particular way than it would have otherwise. Who knows! Maybe two minutes of procrastination today may make you question your career choices tomorrow and lead you somewhere you never expected to be in 40 years.
The question is where do we find order? Is it even possible to find order in a world, which is so consumed and immersed in chaos? In a world of chaos, how did we attain our present form endowed with thinking and reasoning abilities, when we are in actuality nothing but a combination of molecules? How do simple cells with no central control system divide and differentiate on their own to form a complex foetus in the womb? This is precisely what the English mathematician Alan Turing discussed in his work, The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis , where he underscored the miraculously ingrained patterns of self-organisation observed in living organisms. This spontaneous order stems from the “local interactions” within the disordered system, such as a majestic flock of birds soaring high in the sky, or the schools of fish underwater. While these biological systems may seem chaotic when viewed from the standpoint of an individual constituent within the system (i.e. a bird flying in a flock), they exhibit extraordinary order and exquisite patterns, when analysed as a whole from a third person’s perspective (a human observing the flock of birds). It is self-organisation that leads to grains of sands being unconsciously assembled such that they create magnificent sand dunes. Trees, rivers and blood vessels branching into stunning patterns of self-similarity, all beautifully demonstrate this paradox of order in disorder.
All this means that we, in our petty human lives, fail to understand that chaos is nothing but a masked form of order and the key lies not in evading it but embracing it. While chaos may cause momentary frustration, it enables man to see the greater truth, showing him how his pathetic attempts to control everything around him may verily be the cause of his misery. In the words of the Buddha, “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence”. The beauty of life lies in the perfect blend of both the systems and not merely escaping from one. Embrace the chaos, rise every morning in the expectation of being surprised and learning something new, let life teach you how to have peace in all this turmoil that you cannot control.
Subscribe to The Pangean
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox