on July 12, 2005
When I first picked up Gleick's "Chaos" I was a little skeptical - could a book written in 1987 still work as an introduction to chaos and nonlinear dynamics, a field that has been evolving rapidly for the past eighteen years? Well, in a certain sense, it turns out it can.
The truth is that the focus of Gleick's book is not so much chaos itself as it is the people who first explored chaos theory and eventually managed to make it respectable and bring it into the mainstream. As the book's subtitle hints, Gleick is concerned mainly with how a 'new science' is 'made', not necessarily with the actual science or math involved. This was not quite what I was expecting from "Chaos", but it is actually an advantage for the book, since its age becomes somewhat irrelevant: although chaos theory itself has been growing and evolving dramatically in recent decades, "Chaos" deals only with its roots in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. On the other hand, I was hoping for more discussion of the science itself, rather than the personalities involved in its early development.
I was also not that taken with the style of Gleick's writing. His narrative tends to jump around rapidly, often spending only a few pages on some person or event before moving on to another, commonly with little in the way of connection or logical transition. This is fine for short articles in newspapers and magazines, but it doesn't work so well in a 300+ page book. The vast cast of characters (meteorologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, biologists, ecologists and many others) spins in and out of view, and it can be very difficult to get more than a general impression how the little pieces all fit together in the big picture.
However, even though I'm complaining about the content and presentation, I'm still giving "Chaos" four stars. This is because "Chaos" managed to get me interested in and excited about nonlinear dynamics. Gleick was able to convey the sense of wonder and excitement that comes from looking at nature in a new way, through the lens of nonlinearity. He successfully presented the making of this new science as the greatest and most exciting scientific revolution since the development of quantum mechanics - with the difference that chaos is more accessible, more understandable, and applicable in a far wider range of fields.
In short, "Chaos" still achieves its goal 18 years after it was written. It gets the reader (this reader, at least) interested in and excited about nonlinear dynamics and eager to explore the topic in greater depth. Reading Gleick's book inspired me to pick up a copy of Robert Hilborn's "Chaos and Nonlinear Dynamics" from the library and take a more serious look at the science itself. "Chaos" should make a good read for anyone who knows little or nothing about chaos or nonlinear dynamics but is curious about the topic and interested in learning a bit about its early development.
I am not a hard scientist, but I like to have some idea of what is going on in those fields. Books like this one are ideal for people such as me. This book tackles the fascinating field of Chaos Theory. It turns out that certain patterns recur over and over in many diverse areas of the universe, whether it is the patterning of galaxies in clusters or the price of cotton.
Specialists working in many fields independently discovered curious patterns, and eventually, starting mainly in the 1970's, they became aware of each others' work. This book takes physics as the field on which it focuses, but it mentions many others. Since some of these fields involve conscious human decision making (especially economics), I have begun to wonder whether I can find comparable patterns in languages, my own specialty.
There are many reviews of a previous printing of this book: Chaos: Making a New Science, so you can go there to check them out. Other books useful to non-specialists interested in the history of and current research in the hard sciences are The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality,A Briefer History of Time and Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World.
on April 10, 2011
(This review is based on the iBook version of Chaos: The Enhanced Edition, which I am assuming is identical to the Kindle edition)
In 1987 I got my Bachelors of Science in physics, Prozac was launched in the US, and James Gleick published Chaos. I don't think the middle one has any bearing on the other two. But the first and last are tentatively linked because, despite being completely jazzed on physics, I didn't read it.
Being a young physicist with a new-found appreciation of the universe and just how complex it is, I quickly found there was nothing thing quite so irritating as a popular science book. Just imagine, after three years of sweat and tears you begin to get a feel for the basics of your chosen subject, when some smart alec arts student comes along authoritatively sprouting stuff that you think you should understand, but don't - and all because they've read the latest best seller in the science charts.
Humiliating? Not even close!
But time and maturity help to break down the fragile arrogance of youth, so when I was asked to review the just-released enhanced e-edition of James Gleick's best-seller Chaos, I willingly agreed. And I'm glad I did.
For those who were too young, too disinterested or, like me, too arrogant to read the book when it first appeared, this is the story of how a group of scientists and mathematicians from very different backgrounds found a new way to describe the world. Traditionally, scientists had tried to understand natural phenomenon and systems as stable or almost-stable systems. And it was assumed that complex systems needed even more complex models and webs of equations in order to fully appreciate them. Yet to traditional science, an understanding of even the simplest of natural systems - clouds, air movements, the patterns made by ink drops in water, remained elusive. Little by little though, researchers from different backgrounds began to realize that complexity could stem from very simple equations, that complex and apparently chaotic systems showed "regular" behavior, and that utterly different systems - noise on telephone wires, dripping taps, heartbeats and many, many others - demonstrated remarkable similarities. No longer did it seem necessary to develop ever-more complex science to understand complex natural systems.
This represented a profound change in understanding in the science community - and one that wasn't necessarily welcomed with open arms.
I can't say I was over the moon about reading Chaos as an ebook rather than a conventional book. But reading on the iPad was OK (the audiovisual elements aren't available on the Kindle). Reading non-fiction, the experience becomes less important than the assimilation of knowledge to me, so the iPad served its purpose. And I must admit, the iBook interface on the iPad is pretty slick.
Of course, the supposed beauty of ebooks - and this one in particular - is the stuff that you just cannot do with a conventional book.
Chaos: The Enhanced Edition includes seven embedded videos that illustrate different aspects of chaotoc systems. And they start with an interview with James Gleick. These are interesting. It's kind of cute to click on them and see the mathematics being visualized. And Gleick's introduction is worth watching. But to be honest, I found they really didn't add to my experience in reading the book. I didn't want to take a 1 - 2 minute break to watch an animation in the middle of reading I discovered. And compared to reading, the rate of information transfer from a video seems glacial!
For me, the videos were an unnecessary distraction. But of course, to others, they may not be - and to give them credit, they were short, unobtrusive, and well done.
Overall, the Chaos ebook is well worth reading. The enhancements I can take or leave - others may appreciate them though. But the text still has the power to make you think, and force you to see the world another way, whether it's observing clouds, listening to a tap drip, or idly watching the way the bubbles swirl in your just-poured glass of beer.
(Reproduced from the review: James Gleick's Chaos - the enhanced edition, on [...])
on August 1, 2004
Have you ever wondered why a leaf or tree is shaped the way it is? Can science explain the seemingly randomness of nature? This book will make your imagination run wild. Pure science meets Mother Nature. I would read from this book each night before I went to bed and then just dream about the possibilities. This is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. I grab this book off the shelf at least once a month and just thumb through it again to revisit some of the ideas. His explanation and discussions about nonlinear dynamics were very eye opening for me. The author also did a great job of providing a brief background of each scientific breakthrough along the way. This provided allot of additional and interesting facts that directly contributed to ones understanding.
You don't have to be a genius to comprehend and enjoy this book. Some of the reviews for this book complain about there not being enough math to support the theory. The lack of advanced math made this book even more enjoyable for me. The average person will appreciate this book just as much as anyone else.
This book also has some very nice full color illustrations. Nothing was spared for this book. You won't be disappointed.
on September 2, 1999
I read this book when it was first published, and it was the beginning of a journey that led me to my present job (at a Santa Fe Institute spinoff company), so I must admit to feeling a debt of gratitude to Gleick! He writes engagingly about the people who founded "chaos theory" and explains their discoveries in easy-to-understand terms -- other "popular science" works (e.g., "Goedel, Escher, Bach") from the same era were beyond me mathematically, but I feel that Gleick gave me a clear and accurate sense of what the theory was all about. On the other hand, he seems to focus too much on the "who" and not the "what" of chaos theory, a habit that, unfortunately, has persisted in other authors' books on the subject -- granted, some amazing "characters" work in the field, but I think emphasizing their eccentricity detracts from the solid science they're doing and the real-life applicability of the theory. To me, the best overall introduction to this subject is Mitchell Waldrop's "Complexity"; Gleick deserves credit for piquing everyone's interest, but this book is, to my mind, only an appetizer.
on September 29, 2007
We all know things that are not predictable. These can be everyday occurrences like the weather, or more specialised events (whether the stock market will go up or down). The unpredictable plays a large part in "normal life". Yet for some of these matters, there is a nagging feeling that if sufficient information were known, the unpredictable would indeed be able to be forecast with as much certainty as whether the sun will rise tomorrow. Thus James Gleick introduces the topic of `chaos' - there can be a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". If we were to know the initial conditions in all their details, predictability would be brought within our grasp. Thus the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in China could result in rainfall in Indianapolis.
At times I was lost in the small detail, but the strength of this book is that it paints a big picture. The mathematics (and physics, and chemistry, and biology, and .....) is sometimes beyond me, but the overall story is that there is `chaos' all around. Some of the chaos is linked into classic Newtonian mechanics, but strangely enough, chaos almost has in itself an order and `predictability' about it.
The three of the most significant scientific theories of the 20th century are reckoned to be Einstein's General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and ...... Chaos Theory. Before opening this very historical account of the last mentioned, I knew nothing about the theory of chaos. Now I have an awareness of the subject, and how experimentation can play a part in mathematics. Experimentation and mathematics are not normally uttered in the same sentence.
Look for the big picture, and do not get lost in the people and places, which can be bewildering. If you read this book, please ensure that it has colour photographs within it - the pictures are both staggering, and help to bring home the message. Some areas of chaos have their roots in self similarity, and the pictures from Mendelbrot sets are both staggering and fascinating. Self similarity can be best summed up by the classic (and anonymous) ditty: "Big fleas have on their backs small fleas to bite them, small flees have smaller fleas and so ad infinitum"
Gleick is strong on the history and roots of chaos, and how the ideas were received when initially tabled. There was shock and disbelief that others from external communities could have something to say that would have relevance to (say) population growth models, from totally different scientific disciplines. There was also reluctance initially to publish some of the ground-braking ideas.
Chaos is about non-linear dynamics, fractals, fractal boundary basins and much more. As `chaos' as a concept (and almost as a discipline) spread, rather than bringing order when chaos had existed before (and this could be described as one of the main purposes of `science'), evidence of more chaos emerges.
From study, it could be that there is more evidence of chaos than we thought hitherto. There could be chaos in space, and the onset of cardiac arrhythmias (heart attacks) seems chaotic. Gleick speculates that `evolution' is chaos with feedback. He has made me more aware of randomness. Classic determinism generates randomness. Perhaps, just perhaps, chaos is a way to reconcile free will and determinism. All in all, unlike the pure scientists of old, I now find myself positively looking for chaos.
Perhaps that is a mark of a well presented book.
This book has been on my "to read" list for several years, so I looked forward to getting to read it. While it is written in an entertaining style, I cannot whole-heartedly recommend it. This is more a book about the people who made contributions to chaos theory (non-linear dynamics and Fractals) than a coherent presentation of these theories. This is not the book to get if you want to understand Chaos theories, as it has less depth than the average Scientific American article. After reading it, I got a general feeling for the subject, but it was something that I had to piece together from the narrative.
As an analogy, it is as if a book on the Battle of Gettysburg consisted of biographical sketches of two-dozen of the participants, each detailing their contributions, but without an overview of the battle as a whole. You would learn about the people who fought there and from the descriptions of their individual contributions, you could piece together an idea of the battle. A good historian takes this type of information and uses it to create a coherent picture. I expect the same from a science writer.
The book contains some illustrations of chaotic systems and fractals, but in my opinion not enough. There are only a few mathematical equations; again in my opinion this could have been beefed up (at least in an appendix). I came away with a feeling that Chaos theory is very important and has many applications in different fields of science, but I knew this already, which is why I read the book. I would have preferred more of a linear presentation rather than this somewhat chaotic one.
on July 19, 2000
Gleick's "Chaos" will change the way you look at the world. Not once, not twice, but three times, I found myself, jaw agape, staring through the text into infinity and pondering the immensity of what I had just read. This is as much a testament to Gleick's powerful prose as it is to the profound implications of chaos theory.
Gleick accomplishes an impressive feat in his chronicle of chaos' brief history. He skillfully interweaves the characters, their ideas, and the interactions among characters and ideas into a seamless story so as to give the reader an accurate sense of how chaos theory evolved over the course of a couple of decades.
While "Chaos" does not delve into the mathematics, it provides enough detail for readers with technical backgrounds to make the appropriate connections and develop a more complete understanding of chaos. Gleick also provides a thorough list of endnotes for additional reading.
Enjoy. This book will both entertain and astound you.
This book is the first of its kind, which introduces a new branch of science, the chaos or chaos theory from the historical point of view. This theory is widely applied in the transdisciplinary field of meteorology, mathematics, physics, population biology, cell biology, philosophy, astrophysics, information theory, economics, finance, robotics, and other diverse fields. The author has done a tremendous job of putting this book together with very little mathematics. I found this book highly engaging.
A brief summary of the book is as follows: Chaos physics along with classical and quantum physics are required to fully describe physical reality. Physical laws described by differential equations correspond to deterministic systems. In quantum physics, the Schrödinger equation which describes the continuous time evolution of a system's wave function is deterministic. However, the relationship between a system's wave function and the observable properties of the system is non-deterministic (quantum physical phenomenon). The systems studied in chaos theory are deterministic. In general for a deterministic system, if the initial state of a system were known exactly, then the future state of such a system could be predicted. However, there are many dynamical systems such as weather forecasting that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This sensitivity referred to as the butterfly effect which suggests that small differences in initial conditions (for example, rounding errors caused by limiting the number of decimals in numerical computation), yield different results, rendering long-term prediction impossible, hence they are called chaotic systems. In short these systems are deterministic; their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. But that does not make it predictable, this behavior is known as deterministic chaos or chaos.
It is difficult to determine if a physical system is random or chaotic, because in practice no time series consists of pure 'signal.' There will always be some form of corrupting noise, even if it is present as round-off or truncation error. Thus any real time series, even if mostly deterministic, will contain some randomness. Methods that distinguishes deterministic and stochastic (a process having infinite progression with random variables) processes rely on the fact that a deterministic system always evolves in the same way from a given starting point. Thus, given a time series to test for determinism, one can: Pick a test state; search the time series for a similar or 'nearby' state; and compare their respective time evolutions. Define the error as the difference between the time evolution of the 'test' state and the time evolution of the nearby state. A deterministic system will have an error that either remains small (stable, regular solution) or increases exponentially with time (chaos). A stochastic system will have a randomly distributed error. Thus one can see that chaos is neither purely deterministic nor is it stochastic. Application of chaos into cosmology and quantum physical phenomenon illustrates that chaos theory is indeed an important feature of physical reality which requires further development of this field.
1. Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos
2. Chaos and Nonlinear Dynamics: An Introduction for Scientists and Engineers
on January 18, 2000
This is one of the finest books I have ever read. It explains a difficult subject with clarity and enthusiasm. It should open your eyes to an entirely new way of viewing the world around you - not the linear world of cause and effect, but a world where things are not always as they appear. Gleick compells you along with his fine writing and obvious love for the subject. A great read for the scientifically inclined and the curious.