It appears that the standard tools used to identify chaotic signatures might be missing lots of hidden chaos â especially in systems that seem like theyâre not chaotic at all.

Chaos theory is famously associated with so-called âstrange attractors,â marked by a telltale butterfly-wing shape (see above). But according to a new paper by two University of Maryland mathematicians, sometimes chaos looks more like âa strange repeller,â or something else entirely.

âScientists talk a lot about chaos and they donât agree exactly on the [mathematical] definition,â Brian Hunt, one of the co-authors, told Gizmodo. So when the journal *Chaos* asked him and his UMD collaborator, Edward Ott, to write something for its 25th anniversary, he jumped at the chance to to come with a broader definition of chaos â a kind of universal signature, if you will â that would provide a handy mathematical tool for ferreting out where chaos might be hiding in previously unsuspected areas.

When scientists talk about something being âchaotic,â they donât mean it in the colloquial sense of being completely random. They mean that the system is so incredibly sensitive to early initial conditions that, as it evolves over time, it does so in unpredictable ways, obscuring the underlying rules of order. The classic example is the âbutterfly effectâ: a buttery flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas. This is in sharp contrast to a simple linear system - say, the swinging pendulum on a grandfather clock â where if you know a few key variables at any given point in time, itâs a fairly trivial matter to predict how the system will behave. Tell me whatâs happening now, and I can use the laws of physics to tell you what will happen next, or what happened before. Those kinds of system are deemed âdeterministic.â

Alas, most real world systems arenât that simple â even those that technically qualify as deterministic, like predicting the trajectories of billiard balls after the break. Still, if you could gather enough information, in principle youâd be able to make predictions, especially with the help of a powerful computer.

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But a chaotic system â the weather is the most common example â is inherently unpredictable because there are so many interlinked variables, that even a tiny change in one of them gets amplified over time through a kind of feedback loop until the system goes critical. Here, let bad boy mathematician Ian Malcolm (he who suffers from âa deplorable excess of personalityâ) explain:

This is true whether weâre talking about traffic, the stock market, the weather, or the pattern of brain waves during an epileptic seizure â or an ill-fated dinosaur amusement park. Yet once again, how chaos plays out in the real world is a bit messier. You might not get perfect agreement between your fancy computer simulation and experimental results if youâre trying to model how water flows through a pipe or the flocking of birds, for instance, or mapping out the orbits of asteroids. âIt may look like chaos at first and then settle down to something more predictable,â Hunt explained. âOr there are rare chaotic systems that persist forever.â

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Imagine four shiny Christmas bulbs stacked into a pyramid. If you try to track the light particles (photons) that reflect off those spheres, most will follow clean, predictable trajectories, but every now and then one will get trapped inside the pyramid, bouncing back and forth. That photonâs path is extremely chaotic, but you might not pick up on it using the usual equations. You have to know where to look to find the hidden chaos.

This is because there may be hidden variables within the system itself, in addition to the known outside variables affecting how the system evolves. So you canât just focus on small variations early in the systemâs evolution â the essence of the traditional definition of chaos. You also have to monitor those external factors that continue to influence how things evolve over time. The distinction is subtle, but itâs important if youâre trying to better understand, and possibly control, complex chaotic systems. Think detecting hidden pockets of turbulence in the atmosphere (the bane of pilots everywhere), or regulating pacemakers.

Thatâs where Hunt and Ott come in. âOur definition of chaos identifies chaotic behavior even when it lurks in the dark corners of a model,â Hunt said. They found their magic bullet in the concept of entropy, i.e., the reason you can scramble an egg, but can never unscramble it back to its original pristine form. It can also serve as a kind of stand-in for chaos in equations, although the usual mathematical definitions of entropy are so stringent, theyâre not particularly useful to apply to real-world systems.

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Hunt and Ott proposed a new type of quantity theyâve dubbed âexpansion entropyâ that is more flexible, and serves as an excellent stand-in for chaos in their broader mathematical definition. Itâs exactly the kind of broad-based tool researchers could use to spot a system about to spiral into chaotic unpredictability â like when all hell is about to break loose because your cloned dinosaurs insist on behaving unpredictably. Iâm thinking Ian Malcolm would approve.

[Via American Institute of Physics and Live Science/Discovery News]

*Image credit*: Nicolas Desprez (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

**References**:

Brian R. Hunt and Edward Ott. (2015) âDefining Chaos,â *Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science* 25: 097618.

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Edward N. Lorenz. (1963) âDeterministic non-periodic flow,â *Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences* 20(2): 130-141.