Instinctively, you know what is meant by ‘chaos’. No matter when you turn on the TV or radio, there it is in every bulletin of world news.

My dictionary defines chaos in this way: disorder, disarray, disorganisation, confusion, mayhem, bedlam, pandemonium, madness, havoc, turmoil, tumult, commotion, disruption, upheaval, furore, frenzy, uproar, hue and cry, babel, hurly-burly; a maelstrom, a muddle, a mess, a shambles, a mare's nest; anarchy, entropy, lawlessness. There’s no room in that catalogue for confusion about its meaning.

Yet as we look at chaos unfolding before our eyes, we know instinctively that we are helpless to alter its course.

We accept chaos as a feature of contemporary life.

I suppose it was always so. As senior adults, our own experience reminds us that we have lived through two World Wars, with all the existential threats they posed. We have seen them come and go, and we are still in one piece. We recall the threats to our own country from our Japanese neighbours. I can remember my parents preparing to exit from Ipswich, where we lived when the Second World War began, to our grandparents in Victoria, if the threat from Japan became too great. And that’s what we did, living for many months in the protective environment of loving relatives.

We didn’t use the word ‘chaos’ then, but instinctively we knew we were living through chaotic times and what that meant for us.

Now, the concept of chaos assails us every day, many times a day, as we turn on the TV and witness the sheer destruction that’s occurring in Ukraine and nearby nations. Rubble strewn all over. Buildings destroyed, on fire, occupants weeping as their homes are demolished. Instinctively, we regard this spectacle as an example of chaos, defined by the term ‘chaos theory’.

But there are more mundane examples of what is termed ‘chaos theory’.

Weather patterns are an example. We can usually predict weather patterns pretty well when they are in the near future, but as time goes on, more factors influence the weather, and it becomes practically impossible to predict what will happen.

Wikipedia defines chaos theory as an interdisciplinary scientific theory and branch of mathematics focused on underlying patterns and deterministic laws highly sensitive to initial conditions in dynamical systems that were thought to have completely random states of disorder and irregularities. Chaos theory states that within the apparent randomness of complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization. The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behaviour is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.

Small differences in initial conditions, such as those due to errors in measurements or due to rounding errors in numerical computation, can yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction of their behaviour impossible. This can happen even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behaviour follows a unique evolution and is fully determined by the initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This behaviour is known as deterministic chaos, or simply ‘chaos’. Chaos theory was summarised by Edward Lorenz as follows: “When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

Chaotic behaviour exists in many natural systems, including fluid flow, heartbeat irregularities, weather and climate. It also occurs spontaneously in some systems with artificial components, such as the stock market and road traffic. This behaviour can be studied through the analysis of a chaotic mathematical model, or through analytical techniques such as recurrence plots and Poincaré maps. Chaos theory has applications in a variety of disciplines, including meteorology, anthropology, sociology, environmental science, computer science, engineering, economics, ecology, and pandemic crisis management.

This short piece is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on chaos, but we trust it provides some insight into this all-pervasive phenomenon, which has now entered the lexicon of contemporary political discourse.

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