chaos: did we miss the revolution?

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melsbells
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chaos: did we miss the revolution?

Postby melsbells » Sat Oct 29, 11:26 2016

I'm more than half way through Chaos by James Gleick. I'm pretty sure this book is decently well known, but to catch anyone up who isn't at least aware of it through popular culture, it's a populist book on the science of dynamical systems and how it developed, including things like the Butterfly Effect and fractals. Here's a simulation of a chaotic pendulum system, though not the one I was looking for.

I've been really happy with how many aspects of science the book touches upon (lack of access to knowledge, the politics of what gets published, bias, the differences and tension between theorists and experimentalists as well as people who make conjectures and the people who prove them, the non-linear historical advancement of scientific knowledge, and the divide between the disciplines).

I'm coming at this with some background and primary interest in mathematics and philosophy of science. So while I've been really iritated by Gleick's explanations of what a linear equation is and what topology is, I can only suspect that people with more knowledge in chemistry would feel similarly when talking about phase changes, or biologists when talking about population.

Gleick's main thrust sems to be that the recognition of chaos in science was a revolution, a paradigm shift for all scientific thought. When he says in the prologue
Where chaos begins, classical science stops.
he seems to be implying that this new science has superceded all previous understanding of the world. But I don't see it. Paradigm shifts have certainly happened. We don't subscribe to Aristotle's physics. But the cartesian plane, Newtonian physics, solvable differential equtions, are all still useful systems for us, even after chaos has been recognized.

Do I simply have a false understanding of paradigm shifts? Do they, like the history of science, not progress linearly? It's been 30 years since this book was published. This science has been around for more than half a century. At what time can we look back and say if chaos really did revolutionize the scientific world? Is it possible for me to say if the world has fundamentally changed, when I wasn't alive before the advent of chaos?

For those of you who work in STEM, do you engage with chaos normally? Is it more than a specialization? What am I neglecting?

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Re: chaos: did we miss the revolution?

Postby rowan » Sun Oct 30, 10:51 2016

Hmm haven't read this book. But I will say models of how things work have different uses. I'm not going to use general relativity to describe the motion of a projectile, even though I know relativity is a more correct description of gravity. But it's less simple and if my accuracy doesn't demand relativity then Newton is fine. Quantum mechanics too, there are regimes where it is more useful and some where it is less useful. Chaos theory too; you will want to include it when things are in systems that can behave chaotically.

I don't know that chaos theory made any more of a paradigm shift than e.g. quantum mechanics. But it is definitely an important contribution, and necessary for a number of systems.

(I made & characterised a chaotic pendulum once, and have done some numerical modeling long ago, but that's the extent of my experience with it. Other people where I work need it for their research though)
spacefem wrote:All your logical argue are belong to us!

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Re: chaos: did we miss the revolution?

Postby melsbells » Mon Oct 31, 15:31 2016

Yeah, I guess I was thinking of chaos as a tool rather than a Kuhnian paradigm shift. So while reading this book I've been excited to see more connections than I realized, and for a little bit got my hopes up that chaos is more than I though it was, and at this point, I'm still excited to read the rest, but not on board with Gleick's idea that the previous mode of doing science is obsolete. Then again, the development of chaos went hand in hand with the development of computer modeling which is more far reaching.


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