Chaos Book Summary - Chaos Book explained in key points
Listen to the Intro

Chaos summary

James Gleick

Making a New Science

4.6 (251 ratings)
22 mins

What is Chaos about?

Chaos (1987) delves into the most recent theoretical revolution in physics: chaos theory. In the 1970s, scientists began discovering that the world doesn’t behave as neatly as classical physics suggests. From the weather to animal populations to our heartbeats – irregularities, disorder, and chaos pervade our universe. And yet, there seems to be a strange order to the chaos of life. Chaos explores the history of this new science, revealing its startling findings, and pondering its implications.

Table of Contents

    summarized in 9 key ideas

    Audio & text in the Blinkist app
    Key idea 1 of 9

    Meteorologist Edward Lorenz became the intellectual father of chaos theory after discovering the unpredictability of weather.

    How much do you trust the weather forecast?

    In the 1950s, scientists were highly optimistic about the possibilities of predicting – even manipulating – the weather. This hope lay in new computer technology.

    Of course, they knew that it was hard to get perfect measurements on something as complicated as the weather. But they thought that with good enough data and a lot of computer power, it would be possible to calculate the weather for months ahead – at least roughly.

    They’d no idea how fragile, unstable, and chaotic physical systems like the Earth’s weather really are. It took a mathematically-minded meteorologist to demonstrate this.

    Here’s the key message: Meteorologist Edward Lorenz became the intellectual father of chaos theory after discovering the unpredictability of weather.

    In 1960, Edward Lorenz began running a weather simulation on his brand new computer. He wanted to study how weather patterns change over time. And he stumbled on something deeply unsettling.

    Lorenz’s weather simulation was pretty simple – it didn’t even have clouds. Conditions like temperature and airstream were represented by numbers. To study how they behaved over time, Lorenz would pick one of those variables and print out a graph that plotted its fluctuations.

    One day in 1961, he wanted to rerun a simulation from the day before. But he decided to start in the middle of the simulation, typing in the numbers from the previous printout by hand.

    At the beginning, the second simulation behaved just like the first. But then, the variables’ behavior started deviating. As simulated time went on, they got more and more out of sync. Finally, the motion of the second graph looked totally different from the first.

    What caused this massive incongruity? Lorenz had typed in the numbers from the previous simulation only up to the third decimal point. For airstream, for instance, he’d typed in .506. But the computer’s calculations actually ran up to the sixth decimal point: .506127. Somehow, this tiny difference was enough to throw the weather prediction completely off the previous track.

    Lorenz was shocked. Like other scientists at the time, he believed that small fluctuations didn’t have big effects on large-scale systems like the weather. Instead, his mistake revealed how unstable, unpredictable, and chaotic these systems really could be.

    Lorenz dubbed it the butterfly effect. This means systems like our weather are so sensitive to small disturbances that a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing today could be responsible for a raging storm next month in New York. In science-speak, this is also known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – and it became the cornerstone of the new field of chaos theory.

    Want to see all full key ideas from Chaos?

    Key ideas in Chaos

    More knowledge in less time
    Read or listen
    Read or listen
    Get the key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes, not hours.
    Find your next read
    Find your next read
    Get book lists curated by experts and personalized recommendations.
    Shortcasts New
    We’ve teamed up with podcast creators to bring you key insights from podcasts.

    About the Author

    James Gleick is a science historian, journalist, and author. He’s considered one of the best writers on physics and technology of the last decades and is said to have been the inspiration for the character of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. Gleick has written multiple international best sellers, including the acclaimed biography Genius – The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

    Who should read Chaos?

    • Curious minds interested in unraveling the mysteries of the universe
    • People interested in the history of modern science
    • Anyone looking to understand and appreciate the chaos of life

    Categories with Chaos

    Books like Chaos

    People ❤️ Blinkist
    Sven O.

    It's highly addictive to get core insights on personally relevant topics without repetition or triviality. Added to that the apps ability to suggest kindred interests opens up a foundation of knowledge.

    Thi Viet Quynh N.

    Great app. Good selection of book summaries you can read or listen to while commuting. Instead of scrolling through your social media news feed, this is a much better way to spend your spare time in my opinion.

    Jonathan A.

    Life changing. The concept of being able to grasp a book's main point in such a short time truly opens multiple opportunities to grow every area of your life at a faster rate.

    Renee D.

    Great app. Addicting. Perfect for wait times, morning coffee, evening before bed. Extremely well written, thorough, easy to use.

    People also liked

    Start growing with Blinkist now
    26 Million
    Downloads on all platforms
    4.7 Stars
    Average ratings on iOS and Google Play
    Of Blinkist members create a better reading habit*
    *Based on survey data from Blinkist customers
    Powerful ideas from top nonfiction

    Try Blinkist to get the key ideas from 5,500+ bestselling nonfiction titles and podcasts. Listen or read in just 15 minutes.

    Start your free trial