Help me learn new things! – Chaos Theory

This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about twelve new things this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month nine/ten. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)

So let me apologize right off the bat. I missed September. Or, rather, I missed a deadline. You see, I’m writing a book, and it’s due in a month. I’m also still responsible for my Upshot columns, HCT scripts, AcademyHealth and JAMA Forum posts, and – of course – my day job. I couldn’t get it done last month in time. I decided to shift Chaos Theory to October and drop Music Appreciation (which needs to be further defined anyway). I’ll get back to that.

Additionally, chaos theory turned out to be mind-numbingly boring. Before this, my major exposure to chaos theory was Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurrasic Park, who kept arguing that, “nature finds a way.” Guess what? That’s not chaos theory.

From my readings, there seem to be two ways to discuss chaos theory. The first is the idea that many small changes in conditions can have huge consequences. It’s the butterfly effect. But instead of throwing up our hands and saying that means it’s impossible to measure things like weather, the field of chaos is dedicated to trying to understand how we can use this understanding to understand the world around us, and make better predictions about it in the future. I get it. I wish one of the books could have made it more interesting.

The second idea is fricking Mandelbrots. If I never see one of those diagrams again, it’ll be too soon. The gist of them, though, is that they are complex fractals where you can keep on zooming in forever and ever, and they will always be increasingly complex. I’d dismiss them entirely, but there are some fascinating applications. The one that appealed to me is the coastline of any land. You can make a smooth line out of it, but of course, it’s not. Moreover, no matter how close you get, it will still be very complex, breaking this way and that.

There’s more. For something like a coastline – which is very fractal-like – the smaller your unit of measurement, the longer the coastline gets. If I use a mile marker, then any breaks this way or that within the mile get missed. You’ll get a rough approximation as the crow flies, but it’s imperfect. If you use a yardstick, you’ll be able to measure much more detail, and the coastline gets “longer”. If you can measure by the centimeter, it gets even longer. This goes on forever.

The end result is that fractals have an infinite circumference even with set volumes. They do. Blew my mind.

I read five books this month. I’m sorry to say I don’t feel like I can recommend any of them. None of them blew me away, and I tried multiple times to try and sort them so that you could figure out if any are for you. I failed. So, in no particular order:

This was the first month I really felt let down by. Even Game Theory was better. They can’t all be winners. I’m hoping to finish strong in November and December, though!  Linguistics and knitting.

tl;dr: I can’t recommend any of the books, and I found chaos theory to be somewhat boring. I’m sorry! 


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