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Chaos and Complexity

Entry 191, on 2005-07-05 at 15:14:57 (Rating 1, Science)

I'm reading a book at the moment by well-known astronomer John Gribbin, called Deep Simplicity. It discusses complexity and chaos theory. It comes to some incredible conclusions where many seemingly different phenomena can be explained using the same theory and are described by the same "one over f noise" formula. The types of phenomena explained range from patterns of earthquakes, weather, traffic flow, the share market, population distribution in cities, mass extinctions, and even the origin of life.

The ultimate achievement for many scientists is to discover simple rules which explain a wide range of complex systems, and by this criteria complexity theory is incredibly successful. Its this sort of science which I think is just so elegant and fascinating.

Essentially these complex systems involve a large number of elements with multiple interconnections, controlled by feedback loops. These systems can reach a state where they are on the edge of chaos and that's when things get interesting. For example, an earthquake fault will produce earthquakes of various sizes, according to the law I mentioned above, but an earthquake occurring now doesn't stop another one happening again soon, because the system stays in this critical state.

The other interesting fact is the way small events can trigger big effects, and big events often result in small results. For example, the extinction event which occurred at the K-T boundary (extinction of the dinosaurs) was caused by a meteor impact, but many other impacts have also occurred which didn't cause major extinctions.

I still haven't finished this book, and will probably need to read it again to get a better idea of what's really going on, but its already a fascinating read.

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