UK Nonlinear News Review

Chaos: A Very Short Introduction

Rainer Klages

This book is a new volume of a series designed to introduce the curious reader to anything from ancient Egypt and Indian philosophy to conceptual art and cosmology. Very handy in pocket size, Chaos promises an introduction to fundamental concepts of nonlinear science by using mathematics that is `no more complicated than X = 2.'

Anyone who ever tried to give a popular science account of research knows that this is a more challenging task than writing an ordinary research article. Lenny Smith brilliantly succeeds to explain in words, in pictures and by using intuitive models the essence of mathematical dynamical systems theory and time series analysis as it applies to the modern world. In a more technical part he introduces the basic terms of nonlinear theory by means of simple mappings. He masterly embeds this analysis into the social, historical and cultural context by using numerous examples, from poems and paintings over chess and rabbits to Olbers' paradox, card games and `phynance'.

Fundamental problems of the modelling of nonlinear systems like the weather, sun spots or golf balls falling through an array of nails are discussed from the point of view of mathematics, physics and statistics by touching upon philosophical issues. At variance with Laplace's demon, Smith's 21st century demon makes `real world' observations only with limited precision. This poses a severe problem to predictions derived from complex chaotic models, where small variations of initial conditions typically yield totally different outcomes. As Smith argues, this difficulty has direct implications on decision-making in everyday modern life. However, it also asks for an inherently probabilistic theory, which somewhat reminds us of what we are used to in the microworld.

There is little to criticise in this nice little book except that some figures are of poor quality thus not really reflecting the beauty of fractals and other wonderful objects in this field. I feel that occasionally the book is also getting a bit too intricate for the complete layman, and experts may not agree on all details of the more conceptual discussions.

Altogether I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was a happy companion while travelling and a nice bedtime literature. It is furthermore an excellent reminder of the `big picture' underlying nonlinear science as it applies to the real world. I will gladly recommend this book as background literature for students in my introductory course on dynamical systems. However, the book will be of interest to anyone who is looking for a very short account on fundamental problems and principles in modern nonlinear science.