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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The Birth of A Science

Like so many other relevant trends, chaos theory had its beginning around the turn of the Twentieth Century with Henri Poincaré in the 1890. In trying to determine if the solar system was stable, Poincaré came across a problem: Newton’s equations would not work for a “three-body” problem like they did for "two-body" problems, such as the Earth and Moon. Poincaré thus had to use nonlinear equations, and in doing so, founded the modern qualitative theory of dynamical systems. “Poincaré discovered that even with even the smallest perturbation, some orbits behaved in an erratic, even chaotic way… Poincaré revealed that chaos, or the potential for chaos, is the essence of a nonlinear system and that even a completely determined system like the orbiting planets could have indeterminate results” (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p. 28.) Briggs and Peat (2000) tell us that Poincaré had not only stumbled upon chaos, but upon a significant paradox as well, because “this chaos only exists within the solar system because the entire system is holistic. Though chaos appears to be the opposite of wholeness, Poincaré realized that wholeness lay at its heart” (p. 155). This was not welcome news to Cartesian/Newtonian clockwork universe fans because Poincaré's discovery essentially threw an interconnected spanner into the works of the seemingly stable solar system. Decades later, Wisdom and Sussman found that the planet Pluto’s orbit, which had long puzzled astronomers, in addition to being more eccentric and tilted than the other planets, was chaotic, too (Stewart, 2002, p. 245).

Stewart (2002) notes that Poincaré “was gazing at the footprints of chaos. Like Robinson Crusoe, staring at five toes neatly imprinted in the sand, he knew the importance of what he had seen. Like Robinson Crusoe, he was less than overjoyed at the prospect” (p. 63), so Poincaré drew back from the abyss, and abandoning the idea remarked: “These things are so bizarre that I cannot bear to contemplate them” (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p. 29). Poincaré was just ahead of his time, and it was not until the 1960s that chaos would begin to blossom as we will soon see.

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