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Last edited 09 Sep 2016

Chaos theory

Chaos theory was originally considered to be disorder or confusion within data. This often arose in scientific investigations when there seemed to be no logical connection between the inputs and outputs of a study and repetitions of an experiment produced different results (Imho 2000).

Williams (1997 p9), defines chaos theory as ‘…sustained and disorderly looking long term evolution that satisfies certain special mathematical criteria and that occur in a deterministic non-linear system.’

This definition includes the qualification that chaos only happens in deterministic, non-linear, dynamical systems, where; ‘determinism’ means the results follow a set rules rather than being random numbers (Schuster 1989); ‘non-linear’ signifies that the output is not directly proportional to the input; and a dynamical system is a process which evolves over time, moves or changes.

The first experimenter in chaos was the meteorologist Edward Lorenz. In 1961, whilst experimenting with weather prediction using twelve complex formulae, Lorenz had to run a particular computer processing sequence again, but started in the middle to save time by inputting the previous figure. After an hour, the process evolved differently (Dev 1998), and when Lorenz analysed the reason for the differences he found that the number he had input was 0.506, rounded down on the printout to save paper from 0.506127. The results demonstrated chaotic behaviour as a consequence of a very small change in the input value.

Eaton stated that ‘Tiny differences in input can give rise to large discrepancies in output, a feature acquiring a technical name known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions or the ‘butterfly effect’'.

Three alternative perspectives have developed in the scientific debate about the relevance of chaos theory:

  • Scientists who believe it is simply a mathematical curiosity.
  • A middle group who feel it may be real, but to date it is no more than a scientific illusion (Berryman & Millstein 1989).
  • Scientists who believe that chaos theory is the 3rd scientific revolution of the 20th century after relativity and quantum mechanics. This stems from reports that chaos was discovered in chemical reactions, in weather prediction etc. (Williams 1997).

Chaos theory has been used in biology in recent years to help understand evolutionary processes like genetic algorithms and to give a better understanding of the brain. This research can be traced back to the work of Charles Darwin that challenges Newton’s understanding of the nature of time (Thinkquest 2000). Some toys and computer games have also been based around chaos theory such as SimLife, SimCity etc. Chaos theory has also ‘led’ to the development of complexity theory.

The text in this article is based on ‘Business Management in Construction Enterprise’ by David Eaton and Roman Kotapski. The original manual was published in 2008. It was developed within the scope of the LdV program, project number: 2009-1-PL1-LEO05-05016 entitled “Common Learning Outcomes for European Managers in Construction”. It is reproduced here in a slightly modified form with the kind permission of the Chartered Institute of Building.


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[edit] External references

  • Eaton, D. & Baldry, D.: A Comparison of Environmental and Ethical Reporting within the Construction and Property Industry. Eco- Management and Auditing Conference and Symposium on Culture, Organisations and the Environment. ERP Environment, Shipley 1999.