Seeing the World in a Beautiful, Chaotic New Way: James Gleick’s Chaos

I was already excited to write a post about James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science after mentioning it at the end of my post on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But, man, I never expected to like it this much.

Chaos is one of those rare books that permanently changes the way you understand the world. It’s only fitting, given that the science of chaos it describes changed science itself in a permanent and, in my lay opinion, healthy and beautiful way. That might sound a bit grandiose – after all, with all the different disciplines and subdisciplines of science, how could any one field change all of science?

Gleick’s book is the answer, but I can assure you that this book isn’t just for scientists or even science-enthusiasts. Like the best popular science books, this is meant for everyone, written in a straightforward style that has the structure of a novel and the insight of a philosophical treatise.

And there are three reasons in particular you should start reading it immediately.

1. Gleick does an excellent job explaining the apparent paradox at the heart of this new science. Namely, how is it possible to study chaos if chaos, by definition, is disorder? Well, the answer is that the name “chaos” is a bit misleading. The truth is that chaos theory is interested not in disorder per se but discovering order within disorder. Some of the most thrilling sections of Chaos were when Gleick explained how everything from economies to population studies in biology and more, systems that seem chaotic, in fact have an underlying structure. And once we learn what the structure is, we not only understand the world better, but can better the world.

2. I’ve never been able to get too interested in any subject in isolation. For instance, learning about the rise of existentialism in literature is impossible without looking at its rise in philosophy, which in turn is incomplete without understanding the history of WWI, which requires an understanding of the politics of…you get the idea.

Gleick masterfully weaves together literally dozens of different fields – speaking with an impressive an uncanny authority on all of them – to show how chaos grew out of all of them, simultaneously becoming its own field while transforming others. One of the most fascinating and unexpected sections showed how chaos theory has improved our understanding of the human heart and led to the invention of better defibrillators.

3. Above all else, this is an optimistic story. Reading books on history and politics is always interesting, but can sometimes leave me feeling a bit cynical, to say the least. Books like Chaos are, in contrast, inherently uplifting. It’s a story that shows people from all over the world from all different backgrounds working in wildly varied fields coming together to advance the cause of human knowledge. And if that doesn’t make you feel good, well, I don’t know what to say to you.

To come back to my initial point, this is again a book that changes the way you look at the world because you’ll see similarities where before you might have only seen differences. The behavior of the stock market and the human heart might appear unrelated, but for all their unique elements, they have more in common than you’d think.

Gleick’s book does one other thing that all great popular science does – it expands our understanding of the systems, both tangible and abstract, that make up our world. And consequently, expands our understanding of our own place within it.

So go read it. Now.


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