James Gleick’s Chaos – the enhanced edition

In 1987 I got my Bachelors of Science in physics, Prozac was launched in the US, and James Gleick published Chaos.  I don’t think the middle one has any bearing on the other two.  But the first and last are tentatively linked because, despite being completely jazzed on physics, I didn’t read it.

Being a young physicist with a new-found appreciation of the universe and just how complex it is, I quickly found there was nothing thing quite so irritating as a popular science book.  Just imagine, after three years of sweat and tears you begin to get a feel for the basics of your chosen subject, when some smart alec arts student comes along authoritatively sprouting stuff that you think you should understand, but don’t – and all because they’ve read the latest best seller in the science charts.

Humiliating?  Not even close!

But time and maturity help to break down the fragile arrogance of youth, so when I was asked to review the just-released enhanced e-edition of James Gleick’s best-seller Chaos, I willingly agreed.  And I’m glad I did.

The enhanced version of the book has just been released as an ebook for Kindle and iBook platforms by Open Road Integrated Media.  It’s based on the 2008 update of the original 1997 book, and includes seven new embedded videos, as well as links to supporting material within the book.  However, it should be noted up-front that the audiovisual content is not accessible on the Kindle reader.

For this review, Open Road kindly provided a copy of the book for the iPad – the $12.99 this saved me has undoubtedly biased my impressions, but don’t let that deter you from reading on!

In sitting down to write this, I intended to focus on the experience of reading it as an “enhanced” ebook on the iPad – after all, the text itself has been commented and re-commented on ad nauseum over the past twenty odd years.  But it is worth saying something about the content, as this plays such an important part of the overall experience of reading – irrespective of the format. And here, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised – even riveted at points.

For those who were too young, too disinterested or, like me, too arrogant to read the book when it first appeared, this is the story of how a group of scientists and mathematicians from very different backgrounds found a new way to describe the world.  Traditionally, scientists had tried to understand natural phenomenon and systems as stable or almost-stable systems.  And it was assumed that complex systems needed even more complex models and webs of equations in order to fully appreciate them.  Yet to traditional science, an understanding of even the simplest of natural systems – clouds, air movements, the patterns made by ink drops in water, remained elusive.  Little by little though, researchers from different backgrounds began to realize that complexity could stem from very simple equations, that complex and apparently chaotic systems showed “regular” behavior, and that utterly different systems – noise on telephone wires, dripping taps, heartbeats and many, many others – demonstrated remarkable similarities.  No longer did it seem necessary to develop ever-more complex science to understand complex natural systems.

This represented a profound change in understanding in the science community – and one that wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms.  In the words of Gleick in his 2008 afterword to Chaos,

“… a new generation of scientists has come along, armed with a more robust set of assumptions about how nature works.  They know that a complex, dynamical system can get freaky.  They know, when it does that, that you can still look it in the eye and tale its measure.”

If you are looking for a deep exposition of chaotic and non-linear systems, and the science and mathematics needed to understand them, you should look elsewhere – Chaos is not a text book.  But if you want to get a flavor for how this new understanding came about and what its implications are – and along the way get an inside track on how science really works (or as is often the case, doesn’t), Gleick does a masterful job.

Interestingly, although many of the concepts surrounding chaos are now mainstream, Gleick’s book serves as a reminder to us science-practitioners that there are ways of understanding complex systems that aren’t always obvious.  The study of dynamic, non-linear systems is now commonplace.  But still, this is a relatively new field in terms of its influence across the multifarious disciplines that make up science. Over the past twenty years, I have used some of the concepts that come out of the field in my own research – using fractal dimension to describe agglomerates of nanoparticles for instance.  But there are many areas where traditional steady state, reductionist philosophies continue to hold sway.  Which makes me wonder whether Gleick’s Chaos doesn’t still have the power to jolt researchers out of their established thought-patterns, and make them think about their work in new – and perhaps more revealing – ways.

But I digress, because wanted to focus on this particular edition of Chaos.  And I wanted to do this from the perspective of reading it as an ebook rather than a paper book (a pbook?), and from the perspective of that “enhanced” tag.

First, the ebook experience.  I read Chaos on my iPad 2.  The last experience I had of reading a book on the iPad was not a good one – earlier this year I got half way through Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail on my original iPad before abandoning it for the pbook version.  The transition was bliss.  Granted, the ebook was convenient.  But the intangibles of the pbook reading experience – the texture, form and weight of the book, the tactile turning of the page, the smooth, high resolution text, the ability to flip it open and start reading at a moment’s notice – transformed the experience from a utilitarian reading of words into the fully full immersion I usually look forward to when reading a novel.

So I was a little anxious as I opened up Chaos – the enhanced version.

To be honest, I quickly discovered I would have preferred to be reading the text in a conventional book.  But reading on the iPad was OK.  Reading non-fiction, the experience becomes less important than the assimilation of knowledge to me, so the iPad served its purpose.  And I must admit, the iBook interface on the iPad is pretty slick. The weight and feel of the iPad still bothers me when reading – it’s alright for the first few minutes, but quickly becomes wearing on the arms (strangely, as books with a similar weight don’t bother me).  But as I said, it was OK.

Of course, the supposed beauty of ebooks – and this one in particular – is the stuff that you just cannot do with a conventional book.  Chaos – the enhanced version – has two key enhancements that I could see.  The more trivial of the two is hot-linking between the text and supporting notes – more on that below.  The one that really pushes the boundaries of ebooks is the embedded videos.

The ebook includes seven embedded videos, that illustrate different aspects of chaotoc systems.  And they start with an interview with James Gleick (see the video below).

These are interesting.  It’s kind of cute to click on them and see the mathematics being visualized.  And Gleick’s introduction is worth watching.  But to be honest, I found they really didn’t add to my experience in reading the book.  I didn’t want to take a 1 – 2 minute break to watch an animation in the middle of reading I discovered.  And compared to reading, the rate of information transfer from a video seems glacial!

For me, the videos were an unnecessary distraction.  But of course, to others, they may not be – and to give them credit, they were short, unobtrusive, and well done.

Then there were the hot-links to supporting notes.  After the first few of these, I gave up using them.  The system works pretty well on the iPad – you touch the highlighted words to take you to the note, then the corresponding highlighted words in the note to get you back to the main text.  But I found this disruptive to the flow of reading.  More irritatingly, many times the notes didn’t make too much sense!  Take this example:

[Text] It is what some scientists call the White Earth climate [link]: an earth whose continents are covered by snow and whose oceans are covered by ice.


Less than revealing!

Not all links are as obtuse, but I wouldn’t consider then particularly helpful.  Of course, these may directly reflect footnotes in the original text (not having read it, I wouldn’t know!), but I would have thought that this was an opportunity to clarify rather than propagate obfuscation!

Interestingly, the enhanced ebook doesn’t link to on-line resources.  At first I was bothered by this – it seems such an obvious way to add value.  But as James Gleick notes on his blog,

One doesn’t want the reader yanked away to a page listing the Great Luxury Hotels of Los Alamos. Or to any page. One wants the reader to get sucked into the book, there to remain.

This makes perfect sense, and I’m rather grateful to Open Road for not giving in to the temptation to include web links.

Overall, the Chaos ebook is well worth reading.  The enhancements I can take or leave – others may appreciate them though.  But the text still has the power to make you think, and force you to see the world another way, whether it’s observing clouds, listening to a tap drip, or idly watching the way the bubbles swirl in your just-poured glass of beer.

Chaos: Enhanced Edition (ebook) is available from Amazon.com (Kindle edition, $9.89) and Apple iBooks ($12.99)

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