Books That Inspire 2005

Chaos: Making of a New Science
James Gleick

As an undergraduate physics major in 1971 I remember clearly the announcement of a new course “History of Physics” and my response “Why should I take a course on the past, on ‘old’ physics? I’m only interested in new ideas.” I recall this clearly because of its youthful arrogance, and because my career fortunately did not follow an equally narrow-minded path. New ideas can be best developed through appreciation of how current theories themselves were at one time new and had to contend with entrenched ‘truths’. Still, the process by which fundamentally new theories evolved always seemed maddeningly incoherent and therefore uncomfortable to my scientific mind.

When I first read this book by James Gleick in 1987 I had an Ah Ha! moment, as he suddenly brought sense and reasonableness to the process. An eminently readable book, it shows research to be a very human process, full of characters, ideas, conflicts, egos, happy coincidences, the search for truth, and blind alleys. The characters are compelling – one protagonist’s behavior “bordered on strange, even for the Theoretical Division.” Strange concepts such as “bounded randomness” become clear. Chaos theory originated simultaneously in several disciplines, and the author points out that this itself helped the theory as it forced the researchers to step outside their own disciplines’ comfortable constraints. Although Chaos is no longer a ‘new’ idea, the book is still a good read for scientists and non-scientists alike.
Lee Williams
Vice-President, Research
Graduate College