Discovery Science: Physics – Chaos in Theory and Practice

Physics – Chaos in Theory and Practice

In ancient Greece, the term “chaos” was used to describe the original state of the world that had yet to be shaped.

Today the term is used in physics with a meaning that differs greatly from the original term.

Physics and Technology – Physics – Order from Disorder

A model developed by the meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz (1917-2008) may be the best way to illustrate the idea of “deterministic chaos,” which is the subject of investigation in physical chaos theory research.

Edward Lorenz presented the image of a butterfly flying around in the Amazon rain forest. Its flapping wings result in tiny air movements which, in turn, would interact with slightly larger air masses and, then ay, mi. with even larger masses of air. This is how, in theory, a little butterfly could eventually cause a hurricane in New York or China. This concept is called the butterfly effect: small triggers creating large effects.

During the past decade, several systems were identified that show how tiny changes of the original setup could, over time, lead to completely different results: the weather, snooker, avalanches, the heartbeat, or a series of connected pendulums. Physicists and mathematicians are very interested in these systems because they are based on seemingly chaotic mathematical laws.

Kepler’s laws of planetary motion were the basis for Newton to develop laws in mechanics. The laws of both scientists are slightly flawed as they only apply to one system at a time, either a sun and a planet or a planet and a moon. Generally the three-body problem cannot be solved.

If this was also not enough, given adequate time, most orbits are actually not stable but distinctly chaotic. However, due to the large mass of the sun and relatively long distances between the orbiting bodies, “enough time” can be defined for our planetary system as a billion years. Therefore we do not need to worry about potential collisions anytime soon.

However, in the early days of the solar system, unstable orbits were more common. Some findings indicate that the outer planets must have swapped positions with one another at one point, and that the Earth’s moon most likely originates from a collision between the Earth and a protoplanet the size of Mars.

Chaos and population

A practical use of chaos theory is in predicting population growth in locations with limited resources or space, which commonly exhibit chaotic behavior.

This natural growth and decline of species populations is especially interesting when applied to human communities.


By making flaky pastry at home, you can carry out a basic experiment of chaos research. After rolling and folding the dough 25 times, each layer has reduced its thickness to one atom and the exact position of a dough particle cannot be easily predicted.

Its path is as complex as the fractal images that were first created by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot


“Turbulence” may be a familiar term from everyday usage. In physics, this term has a special meaning. For instance, in a flowing liquid that is mixed by numerous and turbulent whirls of varying sizes, dyed droplets of liquid cannot be recognized after a short period of time mixing.

Neighboring droplets quickly re-emerge in impossible to predict locations This is where the study and research of chaos theory is used.