'Chaos Theory'- Possible? Plausible?

As I was watching the film on DVD today, I was noticing something. Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm, believes in something he calls Chaos Theory, which he says deals with unpredictability in complex systems. “The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect- A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking [Beijing], and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.” He also does an experiment on a flat hand. A drop of water he places on Ellie Sattler’s (Laura Dern) hand falls off near her thumb, then another drop goes the other way, due to variations: “the orientation of the hairs on your hands, the amount of blood distending your vessels, imperfections in the skin-just microscopic-and never repeat and vastly affect the outcome. Unpredictability.”

Has anyone ever done studies, writing a book or anything, about this theory? If so, have they done so BEFORE the film was released? Are things like the “Butterfly Effect” really been studied, or are they a clever invention of Hollywood screenwriters?

LEGAL NOTICE: The preceding post features lines from the script of the motion picture Jurassic Park, written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp from the book by Chrichton. ©1993 Universal City Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. No ownership of this property is intended or should be implied.

WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!! WOW!!!

MUCH, MUCH MUCH MUCH research has been done on the subject of chaos theory. Check out James Gleik’s book Chaos, or faster and faster. You will find tons research and studies on the subject young grasshopper.

Do a google search on Chaos, you’ll have more reading than you could possibly imagine. And YES chaos theory has been around WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY before jurassic park movies.

Sorry I got soo excited but Chaos theory and quantum mechanics theories are some of my favorite subjects to study!! And I have been studying them way before those movies came out… Good luck young grasshopper in your search, and don’t forget to check out the Mandelbrot set…

One of the first discovered instances of chaotic behavior were the Lorenz equations. Lorenz was studying mathematical models for the weather with these equations, he ran the solution for a while with a certain set of initial conditions. He printed out the results, then later he input some initial conditions straight from the printout of the previous results; he expected to get the same behavior, since he was essentially inputting the same initial conditions. However, the behavior quickly diverged from what it was originally, even though the initial conditions between the two sessions varied by only a tiny amount (rounding off of the printout; things like this are what make it impossible to predict the weather for any length of time). This is what’s called sensitive dependence on initial conditions, which is what chaos theory is really all about, and is the crux of the “butterfly effect”. Drops of water on a hand may fall to one side or the other due to tiny changes in the hand.

You can play around with the Lorenz equations and other examples of chaos and fractals with Fractint, which you can download free here.

Yep, this is one of the few instances I know of Hollywood getting science right. FYI, fractal geometry existed before it was tied to chaos theory, and is a fascinating (if not simple) topic in its own right. I second Phlosphr’s recommendation for James Gleick’s Chaos, mainly because it’s one of the few books on chaos theory that isn’t just about fractals.

Well… they said the words Chaos theory. What this has to with the the bahviour of dinosaurs is anyone’s guess. Chaos theory is to with complex systems, not theme parks.

Tapioca, do you have a brother named Malto?

I was up to that point still trying to rationalise the movie, so I interpreted the scene, as though it was referring to the unpredictable results that may occur in the big lizard thingies, if even the slightest variable was changed.
I gave up the effort soon after this point; it was definitely a Hollywood movie.

Not that I’m aware of. Maybe my parents have a dark secret.

It has been a long time since I saw the movie, but if they said what mobo85 said that they said about the butterfly effect, that was correct. It wasn’t relevant, to be sure, but at least they got it right.

I think he was saying that if the variables are just right, you end up with a great movie like Jurasic Park. If you try to repeat the experiment you end up with the mediocre Jurasic Park 2 or even worse, Godzilla.

Actually I think he meant that because of chaos theory, they wouldn’t be able to control every variable of the dino-park and something was bound to go wrong. And it did.

No, Chaos theory only applies to complex systems. That means stuff like cream swirling in coffe or fluffy clouds in the sky. It has nothing to do with complicated systems. That’s down to bad management practices - like why not just neuter those dinos? Or why not build 50 foot high concrete fences? That is stupidity theory, not Chaos theory.

I remember in JP the scientist said that the dinosaurs needed a special protein they could only get in special food that the park gave them. Otherwise they’d die. Thus, when things went to hell, howd they survive long enough for 2 sequels?

In the book, the end left the possibility open for a sequel by implying that (on the mainland) escaped dinosaurs were eating local chickens, which were high in the missing protein. Lysine, IIRC.

Also in the book, all of the dinos were supposedly cloned using frog eggs. The dinos were supposed to be all female to eliminate the possibility of reproduction, but the eggs used were from a frog that was able to spontaneously change sex (or reproduce asexually?). Hence, the dinos were able to reproduce (it was vague).

ALSO (sigh), it was also implied that the dinos migrated like birds.

Lots of avenues left open for a sequel…

The difference between complexity and complication is arbitrary. You can apply fractals and chaos theory to absolutely anything if you feel like it and have the time. However, in most situations the problems can be solved another way for the same result, but fractals still work on every level.

There are millions of arbitrary levels of complexity that would be ignored during the day to day operations of the park because they are assumed to be stable, but that assumption is not always correct. Sample levels of assumed stability: Supply chain, vehicle function, power & water supply and function, worker availability, etc. These layers can be ignored because they generally are predictable, but they can quickly become unpredictable.

The difference between a complex and complicated system is all in how you view it.


What fun would a dinosaur zoo be when all you get to look at are 50 foot high concrete fences?

I think it is important to note that the butterfly referred to in the ‘butterfly effect’ does not cause it to rain or be sunshine in Central Park. It is merely an example of the difficulty in predicting complex systems. Theoretically if you knew absolutely every variable in a given system such as the weather (including everyone’s body temperature at a given moment, their movements, a person lighting a cigarette, every car engine’s temperature…EVERYTHING) you could 100% accurately predict the weather. However, miss so much as a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing and eventually your prediction for rain in Central Park will be wrong and you’ll get sunshine.

What I don’t understand about Chaos Theory is the assumption of…well…chaos. The more detail or precision you know a thing the better your predictions of the future behavior of that system will be. I realize that there are upper limits to how precisely we can measure something (eventually things like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle will stop you).

However, underlying all that chaos isn’t there really order? The drop of water on Jeff Goldblum’s hand may be impossible for me to predict which side it will roll off but isn’t the drop of water still obeying underlying principles of order?

I guess another way of putting it would be is the Universe ever reduced to randomness or vagueness? I may not be able to know both the speed and position of Heisenberg’s particle with a high degree of accuracy but doesn’t the particle still possess a discrete speed and position even if it is hidden from me? Or does the Universe just say (to the particle), “Well, you’re kinda sorta about there going some speed give or take. If anyone bothers measuring your speed I guess I’ll nail it down for them but I’ll really fudge your location just to keep them guessing.”


Yeah, like so many things in math science, it gets a (not entirely appropriate) name attached to it early on, and then it’s stuck with that name (just like the imaginary numbers aren’t really “imaginary”, and the real numbers aren’t really “real”).

The term chaos theory originates in a paper by Li and Yorke, Period Three Implies Chaos, which appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly, 82:985-992, 1975. The name stuck, the connotations are clear, but I’d say it’s appropriate to think of it more as a technical definition rather than implying literal chaos; it was just a name they happened to pick to describe the behavior covered in the paper.

The title of the paper refers to the fact that if you have a continuous function f mapping the reals to the reals that has a periodic point with period three (meaning that for some x, f(f(f(x))) = x, but f(x) is not x), then f has all sorts of unusual behavior–one of which is that f then has a periodic point of period n, for any positive integer n. (This was actually proven earlier by the Russian mathematician Sarkovskii).

*Originally posted by Tapioca Dextrin *

I think “Neutering the Dinosaur” was one of Aesop’s Fables rejected by his publisher. He later changed it to “Belling the Cat”.:smiley:

What you’re asking, Whack-a-Mole, is whether the Universe is deterministic. Scientifically, the best answer we can give is that there’s no way we’ll ever be able to know. Does a particle “really” have a definite position and momentum? No way to tell, if you can’t measure that “real” position and momentum. What we do know, is that to the limits of our knowledge, we can’t predict it.

Philosphically, of course, there’s about six billion answers (and counting) to that question, but that’s for GD.

Actually, this isn’t quite it. All I know about Chaos Theory is from reading Gleick’s not-very-good book a long time ago, but I think it’s more that scientists who studied dynamic systems assumed that small inputs would have small effects, that is, they would quickly damp out. But in fact, small periodic inputs turned out to have potentially large and unpredictable effects.
So the idea is that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Brazilian rainforest could start a tiny disturbance that could grow until it contributed to a hurricane thousands of miles away. Naturally, humorists have jumped all over this idea, with people proposing that we track down the butterfly responsible for generating storms and stick it in a collecting jar.

This has a lot of implications for computational tasks such as predicting weather, and may, in fact, mean that it’s not possible to do so accurately. (Unless, as you pointed out, you can monitor every damned butterfly in the Amazon basin.)
Now, how does this affect dinosaurs in a theme park on an island? As others have already pointed out, not in the tiniest way. It was pseudo-scientific gibberish from Michael Crichton to justify Jeff Goldblum’s character being a pessimistic asshole. He was just filling in the role of the guy who says, “There are things that man was not meant to know, Herr Doktor.” in every horror film. The kindest thing you can say is that Crichton confused Chaos Theory with Murphy’s Law.

The whole Jurassic Park trilogy is rather alarmingly antiscience – the idea is that an amazing scientific advance is inevitably going to lead to carnage and doom (for everyone except the attractive or terminally cute).