Scientists have long desired to unlock the secret of chaos and order the disordered. From mathematics and philosophy to biology and psychology, many disciplines study the phenomenon of chaos.

In early science, theories of determinism proposed that events in the universe are predetermined and inevitable. Causality allows predictability, but while this idea has led to the development of countless statistical models of the universe and nature, they haven’t been able to predict everything. Random phenomena exist. Tiny changes to the initial conditions of a system can lead to enormous changes in the final product, and a small error can precede a massive one — a phenomenon whose study is known as chaos theory. 

Chaos theory is everywhere

Chaos theory explores the concept that everything in the universe tends towards chaos. In mathematics, data often has outliers — values that are extremely different from the rest of a set of data — that result from true variation within something being studied, or from error. If the variation is the result of error, then it is considered ‘noise,’ which can induce chaos in nonlinear systems — systems that don’t change linearly in proportion to their variables. 

From a philosophical perspective, chaos theory says that a fully predictable universe is impossible because the universe’s tendency to change at random prevents every process from being repeated in the exact same way every time. Physics defines chaos in a behavioural manner. Some planets’ orbits, for example, never repeat themselves — they’re irregular and therefore chaotic. Thus, we cannot fully predict planetary positions as they move along these orbits. 

In evolution, constant changes in the environment and complex interactions between competing traits have led to chaos in the evolution of phenotypes — meaning the observable traits of an organism. So, it is impossible to understand all the forces at play during the course of evolution because of chaos. Even genomes — the entire collection of DNA in a cell — are a record of randomness, since mutations — changes to a DNA sequence — and genetic drift — the change in frequency of a specific gene variant in a population due to random chance — are beyond our ability to predict and control. Yet, mutations and genetic drift are inducers of the diversity and individuality of organisms. 

With chemistry, consider the phase transition of water: boiling water is a chaotic process because its state is more unstable, whereas order is achieved in water’s solid form to maintain the structure of ice. In this way, chaos seems to increase as energy is added to a substance. 

As you contemplate chaos, consider this development: the human heart, a predictable component of our bodies, grows stronger when its rhythm faces minor deviations. In the midst of chaos, in what we can’t control, we live, and we grow.