Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chaos theorists stumped by butterfly effect?

In an interesting piece at Search Magazine (March 1, 2008*), science journalist John Horgan reflects:
When I began writing about science twenty-six years ago, I believed in what Vannevar Bush, founder of the National Science Foundation, called "the endless frontier" of science. I started questioning that myth in the late 1980s, when physicists like Stephen Hawking declared they were on the verge of a "final theory" that would solve all their field's outstanding mysteries.
Horgan, unfortunately for himself, drew the reasonable conclusion in The End of Science in 1996 that if we have discovered everything, there is nothing left to be discovered. Big Science was not amused, of course, but he stood his ground.

For example, in the recent piece, he noted,
The physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin grants that we might have reached "the end of reductionism," which identifies the basic particles and forces underpinning the physical realm. Nevertheless, he insists that scientists can discover profound new laws by investigating complex, emergent phenomena, which cannot be understood in terms of their individual components.

Laughlin is merely recycling rhetoric from the fields of chaos and complexity, which are so similar that I lump them under a single term, chaoplexity. Chaoplexologists argue that advances in computation and mathematics will soon make fields like economics, ecology, and climatology as rigorous and predictive as nuclear physics.

The chaoplexologists have failed to deliver on any of their promises. One reason is the notorious butterfly effect. To predict the course of a chaotic system, such as a climate, ecology, or economy, you must determine its initial conditions with infinite precision, which is of course impossible. The butterfly effect limits both prediction and explanation, and it suggests that many of chaoplexologists' grand goals cannot be achieved.
*The magazine was then called "Science and Spirit."


"The butterfly effect: Totally wrong? Not even wrong? Not even a butterfly?"

"End of science? Or end of materialism"?

(Note: The image is from Natural Resources Canada's Butterflies of Canada, and shows a Common Buckeye.)