A Brief History of Chaos

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  • #Interdisciplinary theory

  • #Qualitative method

  • #Quantitative method

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What is chaos theory?

The key takeaway from chaos theory is that the smallest of changes in a system can grow explosively to produce substantial differences in that system’s behaviour. This is sometimes known as the butterfly effect. The idea is that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Edinburgh could cause a tornado in Mississippi three weeks later. By contrast, in an identical copy of the world sans the Scottish butterfly, no such tornado would have occurred in Mississippi. In mathematics, this property is known as sensitive dependence. Thinking about chaos in this way – especially mathematically – is not new. Still, contemporary chaos studies are able to look at the potential implications of chaos in fresh and interesting ways.

The academic concept of chaos is deeply interdisciplinary and is found across many fields including astronomy, social psychology, robotics, population biology, economics, and philosophy. Despite the diversity of these disciplines, they share a common sense of chaos which appears in many of their models. Namely, a sensitivity to the tiniest of changes in conditions, or seemingly random and unpredictable behaviour that nevertheless follows precise rules.

Applications of chaos theory 

What would happen if we wiped mosquitoes off the face of the Earth? Biotechnology, specifically gene editing techniques, mean the mosquitoes’ days might be numbered. But would this trigger a ‘butterfly effect’ and cause destruction of ecosystems on a potentially massive scale?

Not likely. Research actually suggests that mosquitoes are not necessary for their native environments. That is to say, the mosquitoes play an almost negligible role in the maintenance of their ecosystems. No animal depends on them for food, nor do they stop any particular organism’s population from exploding. Mosquitos don’t really fill much of an ecological niche.

Chaos theory has some other interesting implications. Although born from observing weather patterns, chaos theory has become applicable to a variety of other situations. For example, cardiotocography (measuring fetal heartbeats) involves a delicate balance of obtaining accurate information whilst being as non-invasive as possible. We’re able to better understand the environment of a fetus and warning signs of dangerous conditions, like fetal hypoxia, through chaotic modelling.

Chaos theory has many applications outside of the natural sciences as well. Some researchers have even argued that better career guidance can be given to individuals once we consider a chaotic interpretation of the relationship between employees and the job market. Modern corporate organisations are increasingly seen as complex systems with non-linear structures, subject to internal and external forces that may both contribute to and be affected by chaos. Consider a team-building exercise, where the uncertainty of different individuals meeting for the first time makes the trajectory of the team unknowable.

Things get more difficult when we apply chaos theory to economics. Economic and financial models – in fact, any models which involve human behaviour – are extremely complex and inherently stochastic. The applications of chaos theory to economics and finance have produced mixed results and remain controversial.

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