Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century

Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century

Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century

Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century

Synopsis

For 300 years, Trinh Xuan Thuan writes, since the time of Isaac Newton, scientists saw reality as a giant clock--a sterile mechanism in which one part acts on another in a deterministic fashion. But the discoveries of the last few decades have changed all that, conjuring up instead a universe brimming with unpredictability, creativity, and chance.
Writing with exceptional grace and clarity, Thuan vividly describes these important scientific discoveries, intriguing new theories about chaos, gravity, strange attractors, fractals, symmetry, superstrings, and the strangeness of atoms. Equally important, he reveals how these discoveries have shaped our view of the universe--for instance, how quantum mechanics brought indeterminism to the subatomic universe. Thuan deftly describes quantum mechanics, discusses its relationship to the theories of relativity (which deal inability to accept it. Indeed, throughoutChaos and Harmony, he makes clear as never before the mind-bending ideas of modern physics, such as the effect of gravity on time (it slows it down), the impossibility of crossing the speed-of-light barrier (it would actually reverse time), the role of fractals as "the language of nature," and the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in understanding the universe.
From the subatomic world to the vast realm of quasars and galaxies, from the nature of mathematics to the fractal characteristics of the human circulatory system, Trinh Xuan Thuan takes us on a breathtaking tour of the universe. With striking examples and clear, plain language, he shows how science has actually restored mystery to the world around us--a world of symmetryandchaos, contingencyandcreativity.

Excerpt

As we enter the dawn of the twenty-first century, we are grappling with profound changes in the way we perceive the world. After dominating Western thought for three hundred years, the Newtonian view of a fragmented and mechanistic universe is receding in favor of a world that is holistic, indeterministic, and teeming with creativity.

For Newton, the universe boiled down to a gigantic machine composed of inert particles subject to blind forces. If a system could be characterized at any particular instant, its entire past history could be re-created and its future predicted with just a few physical laws. The future was embedded in the present and the past, and time was effectively abolished. This gave rise to a curious dichotomy: On the one hand, the laws of nature were immutable and timeless; on the other, the world was evolving and contingent. The laws of physics were oblivious to the arrow of time, yet thermodynamics and psychology forced time to move inexorably forward. An abandoned castle falls into ruins, a flower wilts, and our hair turns gray as time moves on, never the other way around. The universe was shackled in a straitjacket that precluded any creativity and innovation. Everything was preordained, and no surprise was allowed. That prompted Friedrich Hegel to utter his famous outcry: “Nothing is ever new in nature.” The world was a place where reductionism reigned supreme. All it took to understand it in its entirety was to decompose it into simpler components and study their behavior. Indeed, the whole was precisely the sum of its parts-nothing more, nothing less. There was a direct relation between cause and effect. The magnitude of the effect was invariably proportional to the intensity of the cause and could be predicted accurately.

Constraining and sterile determinism, with its rigid and dehumanizing reductionism, prevailed until the end of the nineteenth century. They came to be challenged, transformed, and ultimately swept aside by a far more exhilarating and liberating view in the twentieth century. A new dimension began to creep into numerous scientific disciplines. Contingency took on a prominent place in fields as diverse as cosmology, astrophysics, geology, biology, and genetics. Reality was no longer to be determined solely by natural . . .

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