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Wow. What a great book. I had no idea that this was a book about both math and physics. I'm a math major and a calculus two student and this book has helped me to get inside the thinking of a Mathematician. It helps to show what types of problems they work on and how they think as they attack the problems. It introduces one to the culture of Math and the real world applications of physics.
As with any audio math book, there are some parts where you might have trouble visualizing the shapes being described. I dealt with this by looking them on online later. but that was only about three times during the nine hour book. Overall, there were not too many parts where I could not keep up with the math. Maybe one or two times; however, it wasn't really needed to keep up with the flow of the story. The book is more like a story. I enjoyed the real world examples and the journey through much of the research that led up to choas theory. The book doesn't just introduce the people who's research led to choas theory; it takes one through the basics of thier experiements and results. You share in the triumphs and problems. Overall a great book for people who like physics, math, theory, and thought.
Chaos, the concept, is often explained in terms of a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, which sets off a long chain of consequences leading to rain falling in another part of the world. It's an overworn cliche by now, but one that still gets to the heart of a quality of nature that scientists and mathematicians prior to the 20th century didn't really grasp. It was hardly their fault. Living in the age of slide rules and tables (or before), they can't really be blamed for focusing on phenomena that were predictable, linear, and led to stable outcomes, and ignoring those that seemed too noisy, erratic, and error-prone to be represented with an equation.
Yet, as the age of computers dawned, it became clear that the "noise" in many natural systems wasn't error at all, but held its own elusive underlying order. The feedback loops in these systems would magnify initial discrepancies over time, but they would also perform a sort of self-correction, giving rise to repeated patterns and patterns-within-patterns -- similar, like the shape of clouds, but never exactly the same. It's now apparent that this complex dance between coherence and instability, between the macroscopic and the microscopic, drives many of nature's most interesting phenomena, from the branching of blood vessels into smaller ones, to how particles of smoke curl around each other, to the way a snowflake's shape reflects its journey through the atmosphere. Human consciousness itself seems to be an example of a chaotic, endlessly self-referential system.
Chaos, the book, though written in 1987, still does an excellent job of connecting the discoveries that opened the door to Chaos Theory. Gleick introduces us to figures like Edward Lorenz, whose work in weather prediction revealed that tiny differences in input in even simple mathematical models could lead to vast differences in output over time; Robert May, who discovered chaotic patterns in population dynamics; and Benoit Mandelbrot, now considered the father of fractals. Along the way, he touches on fundamental concepts like strange attractors, fractal dimension, bifurcation, complex boundaries, and the Mandlebrot set (whose astonishing visual representation you've seen if you’ve set foot in a poster shop in the last 25 years).
This is one of those books I'd recommend to people who already have some familiarity with the topic. While its purpose is introductory and there's little math, per se, I think the underlying profundities will be more obvious to readers who have taken a college-level math course or two or three. That disclaimer aside, I found Gleick's writing articulate, and seldom had much trouble visualizing what he was talking about, even listening to the audiobook. It's worth having the print edition on hand for the pictures and diagrams, but if you don't, the internet should suffice.
Despite being 25 years old, Chaos remains an invigorating read, offering a sense of discoveries and inventions yet to be made, and demonstrating that separate fields like physics, chemistry, biology, information theory, computing, cognitive science, climatology, and economics aren't as separate as we might think. As bonus, a 2000s-era afterward in the audiobook provides a brief update of progress in some areas since the book's original publication, and some thoughts on its cultural impact.