chaos theory


chaos theory
   Chaos theory is a mathematical theory which describes systems whose behaviour is apparently unpredictable, but which in fact conform to longterm repetitive patterns. Weather is an example of such a system, in that it may seem unpredictable, yet it operates through a continuum of established patterns of cloud types, cold fronts and regions of high and low pressure. The unpredictability of ‘chaotic’ systems comes from the existence of one or more events which can follow either one path or another (a ‘bifurcation’), but where very small changes in the environment can influence which path is most likely to be taken. A popular metaphor for chaos has been the concept that storms and hurricanes in the Caribbean could have been initiated by the fluttering of the wings of a butterfly in China. Apparently insignificant local events can lead to very large consequences because elements within the system are poised at bifurcations and a number of small events taking one path can bring about major changes. Change is caused by an input of energy, such as heat from the sun. Patterns develop in the behaviour of the system because it contains a limited number of components; in the case of weather these include water, air and so on. These are affected by closely defined factors: the volume of the atmosphere, area of the oceans and so on, and the results are inevitable.
   One of the first analysts of chaotic systems was Ilya Prigogine, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977. He founded the ‘Brussels School’ of mathematical thought which focused on so-called ‘dissipative’ systems. Unlike closed systems, where the more classical chemical and physical concepts of stability, uniformity and equilibrium dominate, dissipative systems exchange energy and matter with their surroundings.
   Through interdisciplinarity, chaos analyses, which have been used mainly in biology and chemistry are now applied to economic and political events where ‘unpredictable’ yet repetitive patterns of booms, recessions, crashes, revolutions and political shifts occur. Chaos theory and environmentalism have also influenced the new literary-critical field in British universities of ecocriticism, which challenges postmodernism and shifts discussion back from the artificial to the natural. Moreover, in an increasingly secular world where moral absolutes and the certainties of religion have been eroded, chaos theory appeals to thinkers in the ‘new’ fields of literary theory and cultural studies, such as Stuart Hall or Dick Hebdidge, who seek more complicated ways of explaining the complexity of cultural or social systems.
   Further reading
    Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984) Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature, London: Flamingo.
   PETE SHETERLINE

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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