Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Deep Simplicity – John Gribbin ***

There’s something infuriating about chaos theory. It’s a tease. It provokes you to excitement with all its promise of explaining all those complex (yet somehow simple)phenomena like weather and the stock exchange… then it fails to deliver because you can’t really do anything with it.
There are already two great popular science books on chaos. James Gleick’s book Chaos not only brought chaos theory to the popular audience in a powerfully gripping way, it almost defined the genre of crossover popular science books – books in a scientific topic that appealed outside the narrow group of science enthusiasts. The follow-up book, The Collapse of Chaos by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart goes beyond chaos theory to take in complexity, simplicity and the impact on the real world.
So what’s left? John Gribbin, I think, was lured by the siren song of chaos. It just seems so natural that there ought to be more “chaos and X” books – in this case, chaos, simplicity and life – that it’s easy to ignore the fact there really isn’t much more to say.
Even so, it starts well, and it seemed as if Gribbin was going to give us an enjoyable ride through chaos and the real world, but once he gets into mathematical explanations he gets bogged down and frankly doesn’t do himself justice in putting across what is going on to the general audience – in places it’s downright boring.
There are a few insights here, especially on the overlap between chaos, complexity and the formation of life – as many others have pointed out, DNA is much more a recipe than a blueprint, and the wonder of complexity is the way a very simple set of repeated instructions can result in a complex formation. And there’s some interesting bits towards the end about using complexity effects to detect life on remote planets. But the combination of rather poor exposition of the mathematical aspects of the theory and the feeling that there’s not a lot that’s new makes it difficult to get too enthusiastic.
There’s still something very frustrating about a theory that says “this is why things are like this” but then won’t let you predict anything based on the theory. And frustration is what readers may well end up with. Stick with the classics.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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