From a Book: The Unpredictable Universe

370When I read books, thoughts or paragraphs or ideas jump out at me in new ways. And now that I read almost exclusively on my Kindle, I can capture those thoughts and mull on them a bit with the notes and highlighting feature. I thought I’d share some here from time to time.

I’ve always loved Michael Crichton novels, since at least late elementary school. He had a way of talking about science so that it made sense, usually through story and dialogue. These days, I don’t find his writing as great as I once did, but I still enjoy exploring ideas he introduces. Here’s one from Jurassic Park:

Fractals are a kind of geometry, associated with a man named Mandelbrot, who found a remarkable thing with his geometric tools. He found that things looked almost identical at different scales.

For example, a big mountain, seen from far away, has a certain rugged mountain shape. If you get closer, and examine a small peak of the big mountain, it will have the same mountain shape. In fact, you can go all the way down the scale to a tiny speck of rock, seen under a microscope—it will have the same basic fractal shape as the big mountain. It’s a way of looking at things. Mandelbrot found a sameness from the smallest to the largest. And this sameness of scale also occurs for events.

Consider cotton prices: there are good records of cotton prices going back more than a hundred years. When you study fluctuations in cotton prices, you find that the graph of price fluctuations in the course of a day looks basically like the graph for a week, which looks basically like the graph for a year, or for ten years. And that’s how things are. A day is like a whole life. You start out doing one thing, but end up doing something else, plan to run an errand, but never get there.  And at the end of your life , your whole existence has that same haphazard quality, too. Your whole life has the same shape as a single day.

It’s the only way to look at things. At least , the only way that is true to reality. You see, the fractal idea of sameness carries within it an aspect of recursion, a kind of doubling back on itself, which means that events are unpredictable. That they can change suddenly, and without warning. But we have soothed ourselves into imagining sudden change as something that happens outside the normal order of things. An accident, like a car crash. Or beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We do not conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as built into the very fabric of existence. Yet it is.

Straight linearity, which we have come to take for granted in everything from physics to fiction, simply does not exist. Linearity is an artificial way of viewing the world. Real life isn’t a series of interconnected events occurring one after another like beads strung on a necklace. Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way.

That’s a deep truth about the structure of our universe. But, for some reason, we insist on behaving as if it were not true.

Crichton, Michael (2012-05-14). Jurassic Park: A Novel (pp. 189-191). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. (lightly edited to make a single quotation–click here to see the full dialogue/quotation)

We so badly want structure. Even those of us (and I certainly include myself) who act like we don’t want structure depend on the earth to keep spinning, our bodies to keep working, life to keep happening. But our hope in order and structure is an illusion apart from the God and Father of Jesus, in whom all things are held together. Yahweh keeps it all together for us. He’s also the master of the unpredictable (to us) which is utterly predictable to him. Trusting in nature, in life to be constant and steady is foolish. But trusting in the Creator and Sustainer of everything is the only right and wise choice. Not that it makes anything safe. Or predictable. But it’s our only anchor in a wave-tossed life.

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