Review of 'Chaos: Making a New Science'

Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick

chaos.jpg This book has sat for years on my shelf with my feeling nervous at taking it on. This nervousness was misplaced as Gleick has provided quite a readable book explaining the principles behind Chaos theory but at the same time the history of this new science.

Many will be familiar with the “butterfly effect” which is along the lines of a butterfly flapping it's wings leading to an eventual tropical storm on the far side of the planet and it is this concept that begins the book, showing how minor changes to inputs to common processes can result in unpredictable or wildly variant behaviour. After this the book continues on to talk about fractals, where a relatively simple formula can be used to generate infinite complexity (in the case of fractals exposed as stunning visuals such as those you see in the famous “Mandelbrot Set” that changes in unexpected ways as you zoom in). Much of this book seems determined to convince that what we often see as “chaos” is often behaviour that can be replicated using mathematics, and not necessarily complicated mathematics. We see how this thinking can be applied to many different sciences and areas of study despite practitioners often being extremely weary of doing so. Indeed, this is not just a book of the technicalities of Chaotic science but also of the politics surrounding it and the key, often quirky, individuals involved that dared to look in places that others pushed aside.

Despite being a “science” book there are very few occasions and the narrative is interspersed with diagrams and digressions that delve into the topics being discussed. There is an absolutely stunning set of colour plates in the middle of the book and illustrate the beauty of the “Mandelbrot Set” that proves chaos is not always about math, there is often beauty here too (indeed, those that work with these “recursive” images often tweak to enhance their beauty).

“Chaos” is now seen as the classic, seminal introduction to the science that is still relevant today with the study of chaos still very much an active science being applied to wind turbulence, stock markets and weather prediction, more than 40 years after publication. It sets out the principals upon which much of our daily lives is based including the telecommunications network on which we now very much rely.

An amazing and interesting read that is not as daunting as you might expect! Some of it does get a bit hard going but for the most part an enjoyable, intriguing book that sheds light on a new, mysterious way of looking at the world.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2020-11-28

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: Cardinal

Publication Date: 1987

ISBN: 0747404135