Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Nonlinear Science and Science Fiction

Nonlinear Science and Science Fiction
          --- A look at the “chaotic” messages hidden in Jurassic Park

By NTUNL Anubis Pai 2004/9/28
   In 1990, science-fiction writer Michael Crichton wrote a fascinating novel, which was later adapted to a well-known blockbuster, Jurassic Park. Steven Spielberg, an outstanding director, along with his CGI team, decorated the original storyline with amazing computer animations, bringing extinct creatures back to life. The story caught many dinosaur fans' eyes, as well as two types of scientists, genetic engineers and nonlinear scientists.                                                                                

   The original novel was actually elaborately based on Chaos theory (a major subset of nonlinear science), which was also the hottest subject during the time of the movie. A mathematician in the story predicted that a tiny error in Jurassic Park (such as a computer program defect) would lead to mass destruction. This kind of scenario is known as “The Butterfly Effect”, named by Ed N. Lorenz. A nonlinear system has an important characteristic: it is highly sensitive to initial conditions. Hearing this, one might ask, isn't a classical dynamical system supposed to be (such as the variance of weather) deterministic, depending on initial conditions? Well, nonlinear systems are sometimes said to be “unpredictable determinism” because we can't control all the variables that affect the system, and this factor leads to surprising results.
   The systems which scientists often study are “closed systems”. Jurassic Park, as you know, is an isolated island, a perfectly closed dynamical system. It is known that the effects in a closed nonlinear system are more likely to show chaos compared to an open system.
   Five years after Jurassic Park was published, Michael Crichton came up with another idea to continue his never-ending dinosaur adventure. The Lost World (novel) introduced not only a better dinosaur wild ride, but also an overview of a prospering science: Complexity Science. This is a new branch of science born only 20 years ago. Scientists coming from fields including biology, physics, economics, and computer science discovered (realized) that the world is a huge complex system, which behaves “between order and chaos” or, “on the edge of chaos”. Well-known experimental examples of this area areArtificial Life”, “Cellular Automata”, “Life Game”, and “Neural Networks”. Scientists discuss these systems qualitatively, in order to find the trend of evolution (of systems). Though it's a brand new blooming science, remarkable research results are few. Complex systems are too difficult to study in all aspects.

   Just like some artificial experiments, The Lost World first described a self-organized system with its own evolution rules. Then the system showed some obscure phenomena as time went by. It was a miniature of a social structure, an ecological system, and a biological sphere. Though Michael Crichton may not be the most creative SF writer, he is indeed a skillful storyteller with enthusiasm for modern science. And his books really tell us about the frontier of science, including Chaos theory, Complex system, and nonlinear science.

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