Patterns in Nature – Flow & Chaos

“It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order, and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order“. - Douglas Hostadter

 The essence of each of these words is contradictory to one another, yet, in structures and forms occurring naturally, they seem to have a blurry overlap.

Usually, the word ‘chaos’ is interpreted as a situation of total confusion and disorder. However, from a technical point of view, ‘chaos’ refers to something that appears random and disorderly, but is actually still controlled by natural laws. The apparent disorder is created from extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and triggers.

Seed in motion.; Photo Credit: Tasneem Khan

How to define it?

Trying to define the irregular side of Nature, which always coexists with the regular, is rather difficult. Everyday observations like the changing shapes of clouds, seeds drifting in the wind, the path of a waterfall, waves crashing on the seashore, and the fluctuations of animal populations are some of these.

On the other hand, consider the multi-dimensional web of energy flows. Wherever there’s life, there’s energy flowing. We know of this flow from the Sun to plants, then on to herbivores, carnivores, predators, decomposers and the return to the soil. It is inexorable, and beautiful to think about. We start to see that connectivity is the essential and most intimate component of order.

Order within chaos

And so, within all the random elements, chance and inconceivable madness that have brought our planet to be, there is a continuous flow that enables this state of being. It is omnipresent in planetary atmospheres, rotation and revolution of the earth and the effects on fluid dynamics, stratification in oceans and atmosphere, the weather we experience, gene flow that determines populations, and, the energy efficiency that every natural system exhibits.

Satellite image of Indian rivers; Picture source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:India_Geographic_Map.jpg

Making sense of the two

Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing, and quality of water required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems, the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems.

‘Chaos’ is an interdisciplinary theory stating that within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organization, and reliance on programming at the initial point, known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

The marvel that is Nature

Seed dispersal by gravity, wind, water or bursting out of a pod, ensures gene flow and is also a biological mechanism to spread population. The element of randomness lies in where it might land or which seeds might survive to continue that process of flow.

The awareness and understanding of this relationship between flow and chaos in Nature enable us to make sound ecological decisions that include knowing what we can and cannot do. Perhaps Nature’s greatest; and least understood reality is, that she is both in a state of ‘flow’ and ‘chaos’. This paradox represents the essence of why man cannot truly predict or control Nature.

Edited by Pooja Gupta & Dominic D’Cruz