How Chaos Theory Unravels the Mysteries of Nature

Ever wonder how we try to predict the unpredictable? Supercomputers use the power of chaos theory.

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As humans, we’re always trying to know more about how our world works, so we make models, models that allow us to reasonably predict what might happen if any of the established variables in a situation were to change. This is a deterministic system, meaning the behavior of certain variables is determined by their known characteristics. But what happens when the situation is a whole lot messier, with many, many variables and moving parts to keep track of? Take the weather for example, to make a perfect weather prediction we would have to have highly accurate measurements of every contributing variable over every single square inch of atmosphere we are looking at. So you can imagine, any tiny change of the input could mean a huge variation in the output, and while the system is still deterministic in that the variables do behave the way we expect them to, it is still very unpredictable and subject to variation making it chaos…but with rules, a.k.a. deterministic chaos. Deterministic chaos—you may have also heard of it as chaos theory or the butterfly effect. And, of course, weather is actually how chaos theory was first discovered by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at MIT, and his team in the 1960s. Learn more about chaos theory, supercomputers, and deterministic systems on this episode of Elements.


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