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Chaos- James Yorke

Tina Amirkiai/MEDILL

Mathematician James Yorke told a crowded  Northwestern University audience how chaos theory can apply to everyday life.

Chaos theory shows the wisdom of Plan B

by Tina Amirkiai
Jan 12, 2010

Chaos- Crowd at Symposium

Tina Amirkiai/MEDILL

Students, faculty and others mesmerized by chaos theory came to hear how it works from James Yorke, the mathematician who coined the term.

A famous scientific analogy suggests that something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can directly affect something as big as a tornado in Kansas.

Mathematician James Yorke of the University of Maryland, explained that ripple phenomenon by coining the phrase “chaos theory” in 1974.

 Yorke recently spoke at Northwestern University and shared his thoughts with a crowded audience on how chaos theory can be seen and applied in everyday life.

 He described chaos as “an area of science and mathematics that describes situations in which small changes can cascade into larger and larger long-term effects.”

 The story of the butterfly effect can be used to better explain chaos theory and the idea that an act that is small, distant and seemingly random can have colossal life-changing consequences. The most insignificant of daily choices can have an adversely affect the future or trigger a chain reaction of serendipity. 

 Yorke said this theory applies to more than just weather patterns and can be used to link the series of events that make up our lives.

 “The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B,” Yorke has said time and time again. This quote from several years ago has gotten as much publicity for its motivational wisdom as it has as a chaos theory concept.

 Yorke explained that randomness happens from predictable causes. Planning for that randomness and having an alternative plan, will help prepare us for any obstacles along the way.

 “It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a plan B to begin with,” Yorke said. “You have to look at how your situation is falling apart and try to act accordingly. Pick it up and run with it.”

 Yorke’s lecture engaged the audience with a double pendulum demonstration. Attaching a custom-made pendulum within a pendulum to a table on stage, he asked the audience to clap when they thought the small inner-pendulum would stop rotating. The sporadic clapping demonstrated the unpredictability of the device and showed parallels to how events in life can be unpredictable as well.

 “Life is about not always expecting long-term plans to work out, and thinking in terms of short-term plans,” Yorke said. “You just can’t predict what will happen to you on a daily basis.”

 Yorke was one of several scientists speaking on the theme of complexity in nature at this year’s Heilman Symposium at Northwestern. “Nature is much weirder than the human mind,” said Yorke, 68. He said when we see something unusual, human beings have the need to understand it.

 Yorke teaches mathematics and physics at the University of Maryland and has co-authored three books on chaos. He also leads a team of student scientists called the Chaos Group. Since the mid-1970s, the group has done extensive research in various areas of chaotic dynamics and share findings on their Web site.

 Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, a professor of physics at Northwestern, said focusing this year’s symposium on chaos and complexity was a good way to involve students, faculty and anyone else with an interest in the topic.

 “We thought we could have some of the keynote speakers come here" as a compliment to a science conference in Chicago, he said. "Others can also benefit from the information and knowledge of these individuals.”

 A love of science and respect for the experts brought him to the lecture, said Ray Petravich, a retired math and science teacher, who attends the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute at Northwestern’s School of Continuing Education.

 “It’s just the thrill to know and learn,” Petravich said. “This stuff is not anybody’s opinion or thought. And I admire the guys who are doing this. That’s why I’m here.”

 As President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”