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Addicted To Chaos

October 15th, 2008 · Posted by Skuds in Life · 1 Comment · Life

There was a programme about chaos theory on BBC Four tonight – High Anxieties: The Mathematics Of Chaos – which was a great disappointment.  I found it interesting, but really it did not say anything new to anybody who has read a couple of books on the subject, and I don’t think it would have given any insights to anybody who hasn’t, which is a shame because it is an important area of maths.

The timing of the programme was spot on, as one of the areas where chaos theory is particularly applicable is economics, and the current world economic situation is a great case study in the futility of trying to predict what markets will do, or to control them in the first place.  One of the talking heads, himself a well-respected figure in finance, said that just about anybody can make predictions about the economy when it is all going smoothly, but nobody can ever predict when it is going to change, which would be a much more valuable ability.

The trouble with chaos theory is that it is not simple and it is not intuitive. The Newtonian model of everything makes sense, is easy to understand and is very comforting: the idea is that, like Hari Seldon in Asimov’s Foundation books, you can accurately predict everything if you can record the current postition of everything accurately enough, and that makes us feel in control.   It is no surprise that a theory which states we are not in control and are unlikely to ever be in control and which cannot be easily understood or explained is not going to get accepted easily.

For our decision makers to base policy on chaos theory they would either have to really get it on a much deeper level than just knowing what ‘the butterfly effect’ means, or they would have to make a great leap of faith and place themselves in the hands of mathematicians.  The trouble with that is that you can always find another mathematician with an alternative theory.  I have to admit that even though I did pretty well in maths at school and have read the standard popular science and popular maths books on chaos I don’t really get it.  I think it is beautiful and mysterious, but I can’t claim to have absorbed it completely.

I still hold out a little hope that chaotic does not mean impossible to predict or calculate; just very, very difficult.  Difficult to the level of being practically impossible, but still theoretically possible.  OK, I know that stochastic systems can be so sensitive to initial conditions that to measure those initial conditions accurately enough you will run into Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle…  but somehow I can make myself turn a blind eye to that.

In a way I wish I had been born a lot earlier.  Life was so much simpler when Foundation was published in the 1950s and the idea of psychohistory could be thought plausible.

Still… good to see programmes about maths getting made, even if they are a bit superficial.  Makes a change from reality TV, talent shows and celebrity dancing.  It almost makes up for missing Tim Marlow’s return to TV tonight: he has defected from Five and is now on the Sky Arts channel, which I don’t get.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • skud's sister

    I made Rob a happy boy the other night. Let him watch a programme on the history of maths…. Bless.