Chaos Theory For Writers Part Three: On The Edge

What a weekend! Whilst the Monaco Grand Prix itself was not too exciting, Practice and ‘Qualy’ were decidedly awesome. The skills exhibited by the drivers in brushing the famous barriers around the circuit were breathtaking in their brilliance – and equally breathtaking when they weren’t!

I have long been a fan of the Schumacher take on perfection: in order to produce the perfect qualifying lap, one has to know where the edge of the track is, and the only way to know that is to fall off it! An exercise he regularly reserved for practice.

In true respect for that theory, several of the drivers chose to discover exactly how to miss the barriers at a hair’s breadth by closing the breadth of the hair until it no longer existed. How did they know? Ask their mechanics, who had to correct the resulting chaos.

In the course of learning about chaos theory, I recently discovered there is another mathematical concept known as ‘edge of chaos theory’. This is not, as one might expect, a sub-category of chaos theory which sits to one side, exploiting the deterministic randomness of the main theory but in a less committed way – what one might describe as ‘being on the edge of chaos theory’. No, this is a theory in its own right – a theory about what happens at the edge of chaos. Wow!

According to this theory, the conditions that appear on the edges of chaos are quite different to those that can be observed in the general morass. This place is one of transition – a theoretical zone between order and disorder, where edge of components have infinite opportunities to become or behave in an infinite number of ways.

This very special place provides, of course, the very best of creative energy. The most innovative, evolutionary and unexpectedly adaptive ideas take root here, at the very edge of any kind of organised structuring. It is also, obviously, a place where complete breakdown of the known world can occur and, I guess, for many that’s not a risk worth taking.

This is a place where you get to find out just how far you can push things, what happens in a neighbouring universe, what will transpire if you remove the normal and the accepted, what could emerge if the rules are disregarded, even dismissed. It is both exciting and dangerous, depending on the state of mind you bring to it. It is the perfect place for writers to inhabit.

The theory, in various forms, has been adopted by many fields of study, where it has inevitably been anaesthetised and compromised by some, believing, I suppose, they can use it to their own advantage. But there are some interesting quotes about its application. I like this one: ‘Seeking the edge of chaos … is not seeking disorder or randomness but the right balance between order and flexibility.’

The author here must be responding to a comment along the lines of ‘why would someone choose to head towards disorder?’ – which is how so many people perceive chaos. His answer is to shift the questioner towards a different – and very useful – perspective. The interplay of order and flexibility is something we all need to grapple with if we are to be truly creative.

And if we’re going to grapple successfully with it, we may need sometimes to gather the courage and go see what happens if we cross over the final frontier and venture into previously unexplored territory.

There were many drivers on Saturday who took this pilgrimage, some with seemingly disastrous results, but no-one left the race on Sunday because they didn’t know where the barriers were.


2 thoughts on “Chaos Theory For Writers Part Three: On The Edge

  1. The edge of chaos is familiar to those that study tourism. The idea of ‘liminality’ is used for the literal edge where tourists have left their home and are now elsewhere, and here the normal rules of life don’t apply. Hence the promiscuity and risk taking on holiday in this place of liminality is a practical consequence of being elsewhere. The beach, where the land and sea meet, is a key example of liminality. It’s on the edge. The edge of chaos.


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