Malcolm: You see? The tyrannosaur doesn’t obey set patterns or park schedules.  The essence of Chaos.
Ellie: I’m still not clear on Chaos.
Malcolm: It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.
Jurassic Park (1993)

The “book vs. movie” debate is never-ending.  Which book was adapted best?  Are there any cases where the movie is better than the book?  Is it better to read the book before you see the movie?  (For the record, here are my personal opinions: Holes was the best adaptation; The Princess Bride movie is actually better than the book; and you should choose whatever story medium you prefer.  For me, I like reading books first for the most part, but I will say that I enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings series much more the second time through, after I had seen the movies.  I was better able to keep track of what was going on.)

Jurassic Park is an interesting case.  The Michael Crichton novel was published in 1990.  Before the book was even published, Stephen Spielberg acquired the film rights.  The movie was released in 1993. Both were successful in their own way.  The book is possibly one of Michael Crichton’s most well-known works, becoming best-seller on The New York Times and selling 5.7 million copies before the movie hit theaters.  At the time of writing this article, the film has grossed $1.029 billion at the box office.  It pushed development of computer-generated images and spawned three sequels, with more on the way.


The general plots in both are the same- Hammond and his team build a wildlife theme park filled with cloned dinosaurs, some of which eventually get loose, wreck havoc, and attack the humans.  The novel is a bit darker and gorier.  The characters as a whole are similar.  Hammond is one of the more noticeable changes- the naïvely optimistic film-version replaces a more cold-hearted businessman book-version.  Both caution that just because humans can do something doesn’t mean they should.

Maybe the movie characters could have benefited with some of the deeper science, engineering, and math explanations that were provided to the book characters.  Take chaos theory, as described by Ian Malcolm, a mathematician brought to evaluate the island park.  The movie-version Ian Malcolm only briefly flirts with explaining chaos theory.  The scene consists of Malcolm describing the butterfly effect, a cornerstone of chaos theory that is based on the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings could change the air currents ever so slightly, which may eventually change the weather.  While traveling in the park, Malcolm places water droplets on paleobotanist Ellie Sattler’s hand.  As the droplets rolls in different directions, Malcolm explains that the droplets travel different paths due to tiny differences such as blood traveling through her hand or hair orientation.  Basically, it’s unpredictable.


That’s an easy-to-understand explanation, but chaos theory doesn’t just simply claim that things are unpredictable.  The book-version Ian Malcolm goes into a much deeper description.

Chaos theory was built on a rounding error.  Edward Lorenz, a meteorology professor at MIT, was running a computer model that simulated weather patterns.  At some point, he decided to rerun an earlier prediction.  To save time, he started the model at the halfway point, typing in variable numbers from a computer printout.  The computer only printed out variables to the third decimal place, so one of the variables he typed in was 0.506.  This second run did not repeat the pattern found in the first run, despite the alleged same conditions.  When Lorenz went digging for an answer, he found that the variable was actually 0.506127- the 0.000127 was cut off in the printout.  Even though a difference of 0.000127 would seem insignificant, the tiny variable change led to a very different end result.  Lorenz published his findings on chaos theory in 1963.

Basically, chaos theory states that slight variations in the initial condition of a complex system can lead to large differences over time.  It’s practically impossible to determine the future given that we don’t know and can’t track every single condition at the starting point.  When we work with approximations to make predictions, the approximations may not lead to accurate results.  As Lorenz wrote while visiting the University of Maryland, “Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

butterfly effect

Consider, once again, the butterfly effect.  A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking.  That tiny air movement changes the atmospheric conditions slightly, but eventually cascades and causes larger and larger changes until, eventually, what was supposed to be a sunny day in Central Park ends up with rain.  Models don’t take into account these tiny acts.

Not everyone prescribes to that idea, saying that a butterfly is too small to have an effect on weather, but it does at least metaphorically demonstrate that approximations and cutting out even the smallest variables could change the end result.

Chaos theory started in meteorology with Edward Lorenz trying to model weather patterns, but over time chaos theory has filtered into other areas of study.  Biologists try to predict population changes by considering factors like disease, crowing, food sources, and predator presence.  These population models show chaos properties, with tiny variable differences greatly changing the outcome.  Other chaos theory applications may be used in predicting road traffic, modeling the relationship between products and inflation, and human pathology studying disease behavior, among others.

Fractal images have a root in chaos as well.  Fractals are never-ending patterns that repeat a process over and over.  They’re considered images of dynamic systems and pictures of chaos.    Graphs of chaotic processes often look like fractals.  Like chaos systems, fractals are complex systems built on properties.

fractals from book

Fractals even pop up in the Jurassic Park book.  At the start of each section, the reader is greeted with an image.  In the first section, it’s a simple line design.  In the second sections, more lines are applied.  This continues on to the last section, at which point the fractal image known as the “Dragon Curve” forms.  This final shape is complicated, but built by adding the same simple initial shape over and over and over again.  Even if the initial shape was just slightly modified, a vastly different outcome would be expected.

So was it really chaos theory that brought down Jurassic ParkJames Yorke from the University of Maryland points out that chaos theory doesn’t have anything to do with a saboteur (Dennis Nedry) de-activating the security system, but it does cover the ability for the dinosaurs to change sex and breed, an  unexpected outcome of combining dinosaur DNA and frog DNA.  Emily Clader stated that Jurassic Park is more about hubris than chaos theory.  It wasn’t just that the park’s builders just weren’t aware of the initial conditions and became victim to being unable to predict the future.  It was that the builders were so confident that they couldn’t mess up that they refused to believe anything else.

Not that the humans ever learn from this- somehow creating Jurassic World was still green lit.

indominus rex.jpg

No problems what-so-ever.

Keep calm and science on.

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