For want of a nail

As I remarked in response to BrBourbon’s comments about history, I’m not sure that it’s legitimate to trace so much of human history to any one event. And, after a little more discussion on IRC, he encouraged me to write a little bit about Chaos Theory, as well as some of the other topics that we touched on.

Chaos theory, at its core, is amazingly simple. It says that when you change something small, it’s possible that it will have big consequences. The technical term is something like “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, but that’s the basic idea. It can be explained by this poem:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The origins of this poem are unknown. The idea is that a thoughtless act can have enormous consequences, but the basics of Chaos Theory lie in these simple lines. A small change in initial conditions (nail vs no nail) have large consequences (kingdom vs no kingdom). But who is to say that the kingdom would have been won if the nail had not been lost? Even the simplest human equations depend on thousands of variables, many of which we are unable to ever know the values for.

I suggested, for example, that the variety of bean planted by a farmer in his field in the spring of AD328 may have been just as relevant to our current society as was the signing of the Magna Carta, or the outcome of the war of 1812. Perhaps more so, since it has had more time to percolate. And because of the complexity of the system, and the fact that historians only record those events that seem important at the time, we can never know how important that event really was.

So, I posit that trying to trace everything about our attitudes today, back to some source event in the past, is a *VERY* useful exercise, but is necessarily doomed to arrive at only a partial answer. At the very best.

For additional reading on Chaos, I recommend James Glick’s book, which makes the whole topic accessible to non-scientists.