Is Nature Chaotic?
Is Nature Chaotic?
Centuries before King Harold of England famously received an arrow in the eye (AD 1066), Chinese officials in the T’ang dynasty (AD 618–907) began collecting annual reports on the abundance of migratory locusts. The primary aim of this initiative was to make sense of the changes over time (the dynamics) of this devastating agricultural pest, and thereby predict the timing and intensity of outbreaks. Now, despite a staggering 1,300 years of faithful recording, few patterns are evident and the data look decidedly messy. Irregular climatic fluctuations, particularly those involved in the drying up of grasslands on river deltas, may explain some of the variability. However, one might wonder whether some of this ‘messiness’ was internally driven, caused by some sort of ‘feedback’ arising within the dynamics themselves. Many long-term data sets on population dynamics have these extremely messy qualities, ranging from the daily number of damselfish reaching maturity on the Great Barrier Reef to the number of feral sheep on Scottish Islands, and it is important to know where it all comes from. The study of ‘chaos’ (easiest to define negatively as an absence of order, but we will get to a more formal definition later) has its roots in precisely the type of feedback processes referred to above, reflecting what mathematicians call ‘non-linearities’ (relationships that are not straight lines). Several mathematicians, most notably, the eminent French mathematician Henri Poincaré (1854–1912), had long noted that non-linear systems could generate some extremely unusual dynamics, such that the precise trajectory a system took was highly sensitive to the initial conditions. However, observations such as these were largely overlooked by ecologists until a new generation of researchers, notably Robert May (a physicist turned ecologist, now Lord May of Oxford), began toying with their own simple ecological models and appreciating that the behaviour of these models was not always simple. Until ecologists were made aware of the potential effects of non-linearities in the 1970s, the prevailing view was that complex dynamics must have complex causes.
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