Chaos Effect in Jurassic Park

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

In this lesson we will explore chaos theory as it is explained in Michael Crichton's science fiction thriller ''Jurassic Park''. We will examine the ways fictional character Dr. Ian Malcolm finds to explain the theory in non-technical language using real world examples.

Chaos Theory in Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton decided to integrate the radical new mathematics of chaos theory into his 1990 science fiction thriller Jurassic Park after coming across works by American historian of science James Gleick and French mathematician Ivar Ekeland. Gleick's Chaos and Ekeland's Mathematics and the Unexpected popularize principals of mathematics, which Crichton found attractive and inspirational. Gleick brought chaos theory into the public eye in 1987 with his non-technical introduction. A year later, Ekeland's book appeared, which examines randomness and the philosophical implications of chaos theory written in an accessible, literary style.

With this in mind, we can think of the character of Ian Malcolm, Michael Crichton's portrayal of the genius mathematician of chaos theory, on par with the like of Ekeland and Gleick. Malcolm grounds his scholarship in the history of science while providing non-technical, real world applications of the mathematics of chaos theory. His dialogue in the novel combines a popularized account of chaos theory with the non-technical descriptions that make the philosophical, ethical, and real world implications of the theory accessible to a general audience.

Influenced by Gleick's history of science, Crichton integrates the background of chaos theory in the fields of computing, mathematics, and meteorology throughout the novel using Malcolm as his mouthpiece. Malcolm references several scientists and mathematicians by name, including Von Neumann, Heisenberg, Gödel, and Mandelbrot. The novel also references Lorenz's 'strange attractors' without going into detail. Instead, the novel offers example after example in real world scenarios to illustrate the principles.

Visualization of a Lorenzian Strange Attractor
strange attractor

A Butterfly Flaps its Wings...

Crichton balances scientific fact with speculation, using a conversational language that makes chaos theory easily accessible without seeming like the author is talking down to you. Even though the guests to the park, intelligent professionals in their own fields, are eager to listen, Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park's resident mathematician and Crichton's mouthpiece, is forced to simplify it into terms a lawyer, a computer scientist, a paleontologist and a paleo-botanist can understand. The explanations of chaos theory rely on concrete examples and real world scenarios. This strategy is used not just to make us feel better because the math would go over our heads. It's not meant to dumb down the specialized terminology either. It's used because the theory is so abstract that only concrete examples grounded in experience can make it relevant.

Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park's resident mathematician, ceaselessly attempts to explain his chaos theory in technical language: 'the behavior of the system in phase space.' But instead of going on and on in the manner of a scientist composing non-fiction, he jumps to the point by simply stating it in a way that anyone could wrap their head around: 'The shorthand is the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, and weather in New York is different.'

Applied Chaos Theory in Jurassic Park

The Butterfly Effect is great in theory, but it's even better when applied to concrete examples. Jurassic Park provides a wealth of scenarios in which chaos theory is explained. Some of them come across in the dialogue between Malcolm and his curious audience. The most expressive examples come through in real world scenarios.

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