And from the chaos came order

As a teenager protesting to my mother that there was no need to tidy my room, I would often fall back on utterly fictional theories (made up on the fly by myself) that mess created its own unique form of filing system. Eventually she gave up asking, and told me that in exchange I’d be responsible for sorting out my own laundry. Seemed a good deal at the time. But what I didn’t know then is that the arguments I was using may actually have had some basis in science.

A bunch of physicists in Washington University, St. Louis (US) were playing around with computer models of networked pendulums, and observed that when the external forces on the system were orderly and regular, the oscillations of the system went completely haywire. Furthermore, if random chaotic forces were applied, the oscillations would settle down into a regular pattern. This is the sort of discovery that both fascinates and appalls scientists at the same time; they love finding out new stuff, but that new stuff can often whip the carpet out from under what they already believed was the case.

So what practical use does this discovery have? Apparently it could be applied to researching the way neurons interact, because the way they are connected to one another is analogous to the connections between the oscillators in the model where the discovery was made.

Of more interest to myself are the implications for a wider application of this idea – the idea that all order that we observe in fact comes from chaos and disorder initially. From the scale of quantum particles to the size of the universe itself, seemingly random processes create a world that seems to obey firm testable rules. But what about the world of people? Does this discovery mean anything in the day-to-day existance of average people like myself? Probably not. But it’ll be trotted out as an excuse next time they tell me to tidy a desk up at work.

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