An early proponent of chaos theory was Henri Poincaré. In the 1880s, while studying the three-body problem, he found that there can be orbits which are nonperiodic, and yet not forever increasing nor approaching a fixed point. In 1898 Jacques Hadamard published an influential study of the chaotic motion of a free particle gliding frictionlessly on a surface of constant negative curvature. In the system studied, "Hadamard's billiards", Hadamard was able to show that all trajectories are unstable in that all particle trajectories diverge exponentially from one another, with a positive Lyapunov exponent.
Much of the earlier theory was developed almost entirely by mathematicians, under the name of ergodic theory. Later studies, also on the topic of nonlinear differential equations, were carried out by G.D. Birkhoff, A. N. Kolmogorov, M.L. Cartwright and J.E. Littlewood, and Stephen Smale. Except for Smale, these studies were all directly inspired by physics: the three-body problem in the case of Birkhoff, turbulence and astronomical problems in the case of Kolmogorov, and radio engineering in the case of Cartwright and Littlewood. Although chaotic planetary motion had not been observed, experimentalists had encountered turbulence in fluid motion and nonperiodic oscillation in radio circuits without the benefit of a theory to explain what they were seeing.
Despite initial insights in the first half of the twentieth century, chaos theory became formalized as such only after mid-century, when it first became evident for some scientists that linear theory, the prevailing system theory at that time, simply could not explain the observed behaviour of certain experiments like that of the logistic map. What had been beforehand excluded as measure imprecision and simple "noise" was considered by chaos theories as a full component of the studied systems.
The main catalyst for the development of chaos theory was the electronic computer. Much of the mathematics of chaos theory involves the repeated iteration of simple mathematical formulas, which would be impractical to do by hand. Electronic computers made these repeated calculations practical, while figures and images made it possible to visualize these systems.
An early pioneer of the theory was Edward Lorenz whose interest in chaos came about accidentally through his work on weather prediction in 1961. Lorenz was using a simple digital computer, a Royal McBee LGP-30, to run his weather simulation. He wanted to see a sequence of data again and to save time he started the simulation in the middle of its course. He was able to do this by entering a printout of the data corresponding to conditions in the middle of his simulation which he had calculated last time.
To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome. Lorenz's discovery, which gave its name to Lorenz attractors, showed that even detailed atmospheric modelling cannot in general make long-term weather predictions. Weather is usually predictable only about a week ahead.
In 1963, Benoît Mandelbrot found recurring patterns at every scale in data on cotton prices. Beforehand, he had studied information theory and concluded noise was patterned like a Cantor set: on any scale the proportion of noise-containing periods to error-free periods was a constant – thus errors were inevitable and must be planned for by incorporating redundancy. Mandelbrot described both the "Noah effect" (in which sudden discontinuous changes can occur) and the "Joseph effect" (in which persistence of a value can occur for a while, yet suddenly change afterwards). This challenged the idea that changes in price were normally distributed. In 1967, he published "How long is the coast of Britain? Statistical self-similarity and fractional dimension", showing that a coastline's length varies with the scale of the measuring instrument, resembles itself at all scales, and is infinite in length for an infinitesimally small measuring device. Arguing that a ball of twine appears to be a point when viewed from far away (0-dimensional), a ball when viewed from fairly near (3-dimensional), or a curved strand (1-dimensional), he argued that the dimensions of an object are relative to the observer and may be fractional. An object whose irregularity is constant over different scales ("self-similarity") is a fractal (for example, the Menger sponge, the Sierpiński gasket and the Koch curve or "snowflake", which is infinitely long yet encloses a finite space and has a fractal dimension of circa 1.2619). In 1975 Mandelbrot published The Fractal Geometry of Nature, which became a classic of chaos theory. Biological systems such as the branching of the circulatory and bronchial systems proved to fit a fractal model.
Chaos was observed by a number of experimenters before it was recognized; e.g., in 1927 by van der Pol and in 1958 by R.L. Ives. However, as a graduate student in Chihiro Hayashi's laboratory at Kyoto University, Yoshisuke Ueda was experimenting with analog computers and noticed, on Nov. 27, 1961, what he called "randomly transitional phenomena". Yet his advisor did not agree with his conclusions at the time, and did not allow him to report his findings until 1970.
In December 1977 the New York Academy of Sciences organized the first symposium on Chaos, attended by David Ruelle, Robert May, James A. Yorke (coiner of the term "chaos" as used in mathematics), Robert Shaw (a physicist, part of the Eudaemons group with J. Doyne Farmer and Norman Packard who tried to find a mathematical method to beat roulette, and then created with them the Dynamical Systems Collective in Santa Cruz, California), and the meteorologist Edward Lorenz.
The following year, Mitchell Feigenbaum published the noted article "Quantitative Universality for a Class of Nonlinear Transformations", where he described logistic maps. Feigenbaum notably discovered the universality in chaos, permitting an application of chaos theory to many different phenomena.
In 1979, Albert J. Libchaber, during a symposium organized in Aspen by Pierre Hohenberg, presented his experimental observation of the bifurcation cascade that leads to chaos and turbulence in Rayleigh–Bénard convection systems. He was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1986 along with Mitchell J. Feigenbaum "for his brilliant experimental demonstration of the transition to turbulence and chaos in dynamical systems".
Then in 1986 the New York Academy of Sciences co-organized with the National Institute of Mental Health and the Office of Naval Research the first important conference on Chaos in biology and medicine. There, Bernardo Huberman presented a mathematical model of the eye tracking disorder among schizophrenics. This led to a renewal of physiology in the 1980s through the application of chaos theory, for example in the study of pathological cardiac cycles.
In 1987, Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld published a paper in Physical Review Letters describing for the first time self-organized criticality (SOC), considered to be one of the mechanisms by which complexity arises in nature.
Alongside largely lab-based approaches such as the Bak–Tang–Wiesenfeld sandpile, many other investigations have focused on large-scale natural or social systems that are known (or suspected) to display scale-invariant behaviour. Although these approaches were not always welcomed (at least initially) by specialists in the subjects examined, SOC has nevertheless become established as a strong candidate for explaining a number of natural phenomena, including: earthquakes (which, long before SOC was discovered, were known as a source of scale-invariant behaviour such as the Gutenberg–Richter law describing the statistical distribution of earthquake sizes, and the Omori law describing the frequency of aftershocks); solar flares; fluctuations in economic systems such as financial markets (references to SOC are common in econophysics); landscape formation; forest fires; landslides; epidemics; and biological evolution (where SOC has been invoked, for example, as the dynamical mechanism behind the theory of "punctuated equilibria" put forward by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould). Given the implications of a scale-free distribution of event sizes, some researchers have suggested that another phenomenon that should be considered an example of SOC is the occurrence of wars. These "applied" investigations of SOC have included both attempts at modelling (either developing new models or adapting existing ones to the specifics of a given natural system), and extensive data analysis to determine the existence and/or characteristics of natural scaling laws.
This same year 1987, James Gleick published Chaos: Making a New Science, which became a best-seller and introduced the general principles of chaos theory as well as its history to the broad public, (though his history under-emphasized important Soviet contributions). At first the domain of work of a few, isolated individuals, chaos theory progressively emerged as a transdisciplinary and institutional discipline, mainly under the name of nonlinear systems analysis. Alluding to Thomas Kuhn's concept of a paradigm shift exposed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), many "chaologists" (as some described themselves) claimed that this new theory was an example of such a shift, a thesis upheld by J. Gleick.
The availability of cheaper, more powerful computers broadens the applicability of chaos theory. Currently, chaos theory continues to be a very active area of research, involving many different disciplines (mathematics, topology, physics, population biology, biology, meteorology, astrophysics, information theory, etc.).
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