Academic journal article Hecate

The Three Body Problem: Feminism and Chaos Theory

Academic journal article Hecate

The Three Body Problem: Feminism and Chaos Theory

Article excerpt

I want to begin this paper by wondering aloud whether feminist theory might take note of the relatively new chaos theory, popularized by James Gleick in his bestselling Chaos: Making a New Science (1988). Chaos theory is the name given to recant developments in several sciences, particularly in physics and mathematics, that have followed from the widespread application of computers to mathematical and scientific problems, where much larger amounts of data than ever before can be dealt with. Data which once seemed purely chaotic might now seem to have hidden patterns, or the possibility of patterns. Order can break into disorder; from disorder can emerge a pattern of order.

Many have noticed the similarity of chaos theory to poststructuralist theory in the humanities, in the questioning of older theories of order. But, as Katherine Hayles (1990) has noted, this is too simple an analogy. The emphasis in the humanities has been on destabilising previous notions of order, on questioning enlightenment grand narratives and notions of totality, on stressing indeterminacy, fragmentation, discontinuity, disorder. The emphasis in the sciences has been, rather, on destablising the very distinction itself between order and disorder. Chaos theory sees either order or disorder as generally implicit or hidden in the other, and potentially able to yield to the other. In opening up, as Hayles says, a third territory that lies between order and disorder, chaos theory has a double edge: it opposes earlier totalizing theory yet attempts new kinds of totalizing theory that lives, from the beginning, with the phenomenon of chaos.

Even so, the similarity between chaos theory in the sciences and recent theory in the humanities is intriguing. Both continue theory-building in a recognizably chaotic and disorderly world. The humanities would instinctively feel sympathetic, furthermore, to the fractal geometry developed by chaos theorists which, as I understand it, is based on the idea that complexity does not increase with scale, and that there is infinite complexity at any level of analysis, thus opposing older ideas of simple building blocks making up a complex universe. For historians in particular this seems an appealing notion, where understanding of one event can be as complex as understanding the historical changes of centuries. Having read my way through Gleick's book, and learnt something about fractals and strange attractors and bifurcations and iteration and nonlinear equations and the like, I started to think about possible specific connections between feminism and chaos theory.

One foundation, or precursor, of chaos theory, as Hayles points out, is what has been called the "three body problem." (Hayles 1-2; Gleick 145) What is the three body problem, you may ask. Well, a two body system might be thought of as the relationship between two bodies, say the sun and the earth. How do we specify the movement, or orbit, of each body? Isaac Newton was able to show that in such a two body system each body travels in a perfect ellipse around the system's joint centre of gravity. But the earth, unfortunately for Newtonian physics, does not in fact circle the sun alone, for the earth itself is circled by the moon. The moon attracts the earth, causing perturbations in the earth's orbit which change the earth's distance from the sun, which in turn alters the moon's orbit around the earth, which means that the original basis for the calculations has changed and one has to start over from the beginning. The problem of how to calculate the three body system using Newtonian equations became known as the three-body problem, and the king of Sweden in the late nineteenth century offered a reward to the first person who could prove a solution was possible. Instead, in 1890 Henri Poincaré published a paper proving that, in general, the three body system is too complex for Newtonian solutions. This realization that linear equations could not work for three body systems, formed the basis, eventually, of a new science studying complex dynamical systems, that is, chaos theory. …

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