Chaos Theory

Artificial trees to fix the environmental mess. Who do we think we are?

There is the common assumption that science is deterministic. Future events follow some natural laws and therefore are actually predictable. The undeniable success of technology in raising human standard of living from the misery of the Middle-Ages has understandably helped to cement this belief. For many folks, Humankind, through science, is destined to master the world.
But our world is complex. Some physical systems hold an inherent lack of predictability. For example, one month from now, will it be sunny or rainy in Seattle? Does anybody know how to escape the current economic crisis?
We don’t have answers to these questions. Despite all scientific progress, our mathematical models produce very poor predictions. For scientists, this type of problems belongs to the realm of Chaos Theory. That’s a euphemism for – Honestly, we don’t have a clue.
I’ll try to explain it. Old Newtonian laws of physics are completely deterministic. In theory, it is possible to make almost perfect predictions of a system if initial conditions can be made precise enough. If you let a rock fall from the Pisa Tower, Newtonian laws are capable of predicting the exact number of seconds it will take for the rock to bang the ground. This is the case even if we repeat the drop several times, and therefore, small changes in the initial conditions could be expected - wind speed, rock shape, exact height where we let the rock go, etc.
But Chaos Theory is different. It studies the nonlinear dynamics of unstable systems. A French scientist 1 discovered that, in some systems, very tiny errors in initial conditions could lead to radically different results. Unless zero-error initial conditions could be absolutely identified – an impossibility – predictions would not be any better than if they were randomly generated by a toddler with a pacifier in his mouth. This revolutionary idea in the scientific world was illustrated years later as the Butterfly Effect 2. The weather in the atmosphere is so complex that it was suggested than even the flap of a butterfly’s wing may set off a tornado in Texas years later.
Humankind’s arrogance when it comes to the environmental mess should baffle us. Life on Earth is a complex dynamic system in constant change. Accurate predictions are impossible. For some problems, there are no quick and straightforward fixes. Now we are suggesting capturing Greenhouse Emissions by planting CO2 absorbing artificial trees.  Who do we think we are?

(1)  Jules Henri Poincare. Study of the Three-Body Problem. 1880’s.

(2)  Predictability, Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? Edward N. Lorenz. 1972

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