Since the early 1990s, Jurassic Park, both book and movie, has been enormously influential. With the movie turning 30 this month, it's impossible not to revisit its themes. Among them, there is a figure that may seem a bit out of place: chaotician Ian Malcolm. Why was he invited to scope out the Park? What does a rock star
mathematician chaotician have to do with dinosaurs? But ideas related to chaos theory are a crucial narrative thread that runs through the book and movie, and it is Dr Malcolm that delivers it.
What is chaos theory?
First of all, let’s talk about chaos theory. This is the study of apparently random or unpredictable behavior in systems – systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions and don’t settle in a periodic pattern like the swing of a pendulum.
“The phrase 'chaos theory' is somewhat of a misnomer in the sense that we don’t have a genuine theory of chaos like we have a theory of special relativity, a theory of evolution, etc. Instead, what we have is chaotic behavior that we popularly call ‘chaos theory,’” Robert Bishop, Professor of Physics and Philosophy at Wheaton College, told IFLScience.
“For even the smallest change in initial conditions, the model’s aperiodic behavior will rapidly diverge away from the original behavior. So, aperiodic behavior that is sensitive to the slightest change in initial conditions is usually what scientists call chaotic behavior or chaotic dynamics," he continued.
"That’s what we all refer to under the rubric of 'chaos theory' because scientists have discovered this intricate behavior shows up in models from fields as diverse as physics, chemistry, biology, and economics. And we have seen it in actual world systems as different as cells and the weather.”
A butterfly flaps its wings
So chaotic systems are not pure randomness. There can be underlying patterns and feedback loops and self-organization. One of the best examples, also given by Dr Malcolm, is the butterfly effect. The idea is that a small change in the state of something in a nonlinear system can result in a much larger change in state elsewhere, like the flapping of a butterfly's wings on one side of the planet turning into a hurricane somewhere else.
The weather is also a standard example of a chaotic system.
“Weather forecast is very dependent on its initial conditions because it's a very nonlinear system.” Dr Craig Poku, a former atmospheric scientist turned data scientist, told IFLScience. "This means that as it starts to evolve with time you end up struggling to accurately predict the future. The further you go out the more complicated it gets.”
I bring the scientists, you bring a rock star."John Hammond, Jurassic Park
While Dr Alan Grant and Dr Ellie Sattler brought extinct animal and plant expertise to the vetting of Jurassic Park, it’s Dr Malcolm's expertise in chaos and complex systems that got him a preview tour. As soon as he steps foot on the island he sees Jurassic Park as a system destined to fail as there are too many unpredictable variables. He is there to challenge the ideas of control and mastery of nature within this system. “Life, uh, finds a way” and all that jazz.
Chaos and complex systems
“[Chaos theory] is described in a very simplistic way in the movie. That said chaos theory, generally speaking, is quite a complicated idea to try and explain to a non-specialist audience. And so with that in mind, I could also understand the kind of constraints that they had on that,” Dr Poku told IFLScience.
Professor Bishop also has thoughts on some of the confusion in the concepts described in the story, mixing chaos and complexity. Chaotic systems have aperiodic behaviors sensitive to the smallest change in initial conditions. Complex systems can instead behave periodically, but these periodic behaviors are the ones that change at the smallest change in the initial conditions. It’s a subtle difference but important in mathematics, and we often combine the two because many systems we can’t predict well are both chaotic and complex.
One example of the confusion is the discussion about chaos theory using the drop of water that Malcom demonstrates to Dr Satler in the Jeep. He drops a droplet of water onto the back of her hand and asks which direction she thinks it will roll. He then repeats the experiment. The drop of water falls on the knuckle and moves in different directions each time due to microscopic imperfections of the skin. However, this is an example of a system that exhibits that sensitive dependence on initial conditions but it’s not about chaos, it’s about complexity. And that parallels the wider theme of the book.
“Malcolm’s point is that biology is so complex that just like no one can predict which way the water drop will roll off the knuckle, no one could predict what would happen by substituting frog DNA in for the blanks in the dinosaur DNA,” Professor Bishop told IFLScience.
Malcolm recognized immediately that Jurassic Park would fail, and as we all know, he was right.
Movies, uh, find a way
In Michael Crichton's novel, Malcolm gets to elucidate on the complex ideas of chaos and math, but the movie doesn't do a bad job of condensing this with his role as a scientist who sees through the glamor of the park to the reality and disaster looming.
“There is much similarity in the acting/predicting under uncertainty between complexity and chaos, that I’m not sure any harm was done by eliding the two. Scientists and mathematicians may have cringed a little (as is typical of most any Hollywood movie), but we still got the point and enjoyed the movie,” Bishop said.
Dr Malcolm might not have gone into the subtle differences between chaos and complexity on the big screen, but he does a good job of introducing us to this fascinating and far-reaching theory. Something that Dr Poku, Professor Bishop, and the IFLScience team all agree on is that Jeff Goldblum was the perfect choice to portray Ian Malcolm, and that’s a constant result that no initial condition can sway.