Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In Praise of James Gleick

"Where chaos begins, classical science stops...In a universe ruled by entropy, drawing inexorably towards greater and greater disorder, how does order arise?", from 'Chaos'

I recently met James Gleick, a writer I greatly admire, and made a minor ass of myself. I had just finished The Information, in time for his talk at the Brisbane Irish Club. Waiting at the bar for Chris to turn up before the talk, I drank two pints of Guinness in short order on an empty stomach. Normally, if I have a couple of pints it helps me talk shit to women, but for some reason this May night it made me think I could talk shit to James Gleick.

After the talk, JG did some book-signing. Toting a freshly-purchased copy of his Newton biography, I approached him with a pressing question that had formed whole seconds ago in my mind. Without having actually bothered to check the URL at the back of The Information (which I had assumed was the publisher's) I pointedly demanded to know why this latest work, concerning itself as it did with information of every stripe, lacked any accompanying online resources ... or something. His smackdown was polite, but justifiably impatient: did I check the aforementioned URL? Ah...no, because it didn't much look like a URL that would have anything to do with the book.

In humble atonement, later that month I read Faster. And of course, who hasn't read Genius?
"We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other . . . Everything was perfect but the aim—the next one would be aimed for Japan not New Mexico..."
But it was to his influential meisterwerk Chaos that I once again turned. I first read it in 1992 when chaos reigned, "spawning its own language, of fractals, bifurcations, intermittencies, periodicities, folded-towel diffeomorphisms, smooth noodle maps." Well I couldn't make a smooth noodle map - still can't, actually - but I could make a bifurcation diagram by writing a small program on my trusty old ZX Spectrum.

Flickr photo
FlickrBifurcation diagram, by cybermystic. Peering into the heart of chaos
"When the line splits on the vertical axis, that corresponds to a population going from a one-year cycle to a two-year one. Beyond a certain point, the "point of accumulation", periodicity gives way to chaos. But in the middle of this complexity, stable cycles suddenly return. Simple deterministic models could produce what looked like random behaviour. The behaviour actually had an exquisite fine structure, yet any piece of it seemed indistinguishable from noise."
Hooked up to our TV in the family front room, I watched this strange thing draw on the CRT screen, unpacking so much chaos from the simplest of equations, iterated over and over again. The famous Mandelbrot Set was waaay beyond my processing budget, sadly. But I could at least hold this bifurcation diagram up to the light, move it around and skew it by adjusting the parameters of my tiny program. I could zoom right in to where the whole map would represent a millionth of the width of the original bird's eye view, and behold the self-similarity, albeit sometimes grossly distorted, that was one of the hallmarks of a chaotic system.
"...the quality of self-similarity, similarity across scale, implying recursion. Some things in nature, like animals, are different at different scales, whereas some things like clouds, earthquakes, and hurricanes are scale-independent. Theoretical biologists began to speculate that fractal scaling was not just common but universal...

One of the most profound ideas that chaos science has given the modern sensibility is the idea of fractals, the counterintuitive notion that dimensions can be described in non-integral amounts, such as 2 and a half or 1.2618. This is really where classical science stops, where "rather than being a blemish, or irrelevant, the chaotic aspect of nature often was at the heart of the explanation of the true nature of reality", especially as advocated by the great Benoit Mandelbrot. Fractal dimensions became a way to measure things that otherwise had no clear definition; the degree of roughness, brokenness, or irregularity in an object. Of course the Mandelbrot Set has become an icon of chaos, as has the Butterfly Effect, and to a lesser degree, fractals. Gleick's book helped deliver these extremely esoteric ideas to the general public, to you and me, to my home micro computer hooked up to a boxy Ferguson colour TV more used to serving up episodes of Coronation Street and Newsnight.

And now they've made an enhanced ebook of Chaos. You can also see Jim Al-Khalili explain chaos in BBC4's "The Secret Life of Chaos".

The Information is just as interesting of course - well, it's not entirely unrelated to the subject matter of Chaos, so that makes them natural siblings. If you like one, you'll like the other: they're entangled that way. The Information is a pretty massive tome, and is probably more directly related to what I do - programming - than any of his other books, so that's another blog post right there.

But in the meanwhile, I guess the purpose of this post was to say "good job". As well as to provide my future self with step-throughs of some of more thorny technical matters that I have had to wrestle with, another aim of my blog is to spread the word about things I wish more people knew about, things I might talk to my friends about. I am simply praising James Gleick for having the good taste to pick the most interesting things to write about.

EDIT: I tweeted this post:
In Praise of @JamesGleick#chaos #reading
and James Gleick responded!
@RalphLavelle well, golly, thanks! I just hope "smackdown" is an overstatement. Loved the Irish Club.
and I wrote:
@JamesGleick I took a bit of dramatic license there James, sorry. Thanks for the great talk. And the books.

July 2013