When we think of chaos, we typically imagine big events like world-ending scenarios or perhaps something more commonplace, like a toddler doing toddler things and leaving a mess in their wake.
If Earth were to become a chaotic world, no one would ever know what to expect as many things happen all the time, driven by various random impulses. But in physics and climate science, chaos holds a deeper meaning. It relates to how certain systems, like a baby’s behaviour or the weather, are fundamentally unpredictable.
What Is Chaos?
In the scientific community and as your physics tutor in Singapore may explain, chaos is defined as the amplified effects of small occurrences in the present that result in long-term unpredictability. Take, for instance, two similar storylines. In the first version, two strangers waiting at a train station bump into each other by chance; in the other, the train arrives earlier, and the encounter never occurs. From that point onward, the two storylines could vary significantly.
Such small details typically do not matter, but there are times when these seemingly insignificant differences can lead to consequences that keep compounding, resulting in chaos. A good example of this is a grandfather clock and its predictable swinging pendulum. However, by separating the pendulum halfway down and attaching another axle to it, its movement becomes wildly unpredictable.
Why Chaos Differs From Randomness
Consider this: what is the difference between the weather and a pack of cards? Naturally, we have become better at guessing tomorrow’s weather and even the rest of the week, for that matter. But you cannot predict your next hand in poker. If you could, you would be thrown out of the casino.
Randomness, such as in dice or cards, is unpredictable due to insufficient correct information. However, chaos is a mix of predictable and random, which is why the hallmark of chaotic systems is short-term predictability that quickly breaks down over time, as in ecosystems and river rapids.
Why Chaos Theory Matters
Physics, as envisioned by Isaac Newton, is a set of rules that governs the clockwork universe, which would lead to a predetermined outcome once they are set in motion. Yet chaos theory proves that even the availability of near-perfect information and strict rules can still lead to the most unpredictable consequences. This leads to practical applications for deciding what kinds of things can be predicted. Chaos is why weather forecasts cannot predict the weather two weeks or a year from now — it is simply impossible to know.
Despite the limitations, broader predictions can still be made. While long-term weather forecasting remains impossible, we can forecast the weather during specific times of the year. This allows us to predict climate patterns even when weather predictions are challenging. In short, theories of randomness and chaos enable scientists to determine which predictions make sense and which do not.
Learning about chaos, randomness, and many other concepts like quantum physics is key to better understanding our known universe. If satisfying your curiosity while improving your academics sounds good to you, consider signing up at Tuition Physics today. We provide supplementary IP and O-level physics tuition taught by passionate tutors in an engaging classroom environment that ensures students don’t miss a beat. Contact us anytime for more details about class schedules and syllabi!