Equation of the Day #13: Chaos

Chaos is complexity that arises from simplicity. Put in a clearer way, it’s when a deterministic process leads to complex results that seem unpredictable. The difference between chaos and randomness is that chaos is determined by a set of rules/equations, while randomness is not deterministic. Everyday applications of chaos include weather, the stock market, and cryptography. Chaos is why everyone (including identical twins who have the same DNA) has different fingerprints. And it’s beautiful.

How does simplicity lead to complexity? Let’s take, for instance, the physical situation of a pendulum. The equation that describes the motion of a pendulum is

\dfrac{d^2\theta}{dt^2} = -\dfrac{g}{l} \sin\theta

where θ is the angle the pendulum makes with the imaginary line perpendicular to the ground, l is the length of the pendulum, and g is the acceleration due to gravity. This leads to an oscillatory motion; for small angles, the solution of this equation can be approximated as

\theta(t) \approx A\cos\left( \sqrt{\dfrac{g}{l}} t\right)

where A is the amplitude of the swing (in radians). Very predictable. But what happens when we make a double pendulum, where we attach a pendulum to the bottom of the first pendulum?

Can you predict whether the bottom pendulum will flip over the top? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s very hard to predict when the outer pendulum flips over the inner pendulum mass; however, the process is entirely determined by a set of equations governed by the laws of physics. And, depending on the initial angles of the two pendula, the motion will look completely different. This is how complexity derives from simplicity.

Another example of beautiful chaos is fractals. Fractals are structures that exhibit self-similarity, are determined by a simple set of rules, and have infinite complexity. An example of a fractal is the Sierpinski triangle.

(Image: Wikipedia)

The rule is simple: start with a triangle, then divide that triangle into four equal triangles. Remove the middle one. Repeat with the new solid triangles you produced. The true fractal is the limit when the number of iterations reaches infinity. Self-similarity happens as you zoom into any corner of the triangle; each corner is a smaller version of the whole (since the iterations continue infinitely). Fractals crop up everywhere, from the shapes of coastlines to plants to frost crystal formation. Basically, they’re everywhere, and they’re often very cool and beautiful.

Chaos is also used in practical applications, such as encryption. Since chaos is hard to predict unless you know the exact initial conditions of the chaotic process, a chaotic encryption scheme can be told to everyone. One example of a chaotic map to disguise data is the cat map. Each iteration is a simple matrix transformation of the pixels of an image. It’s completely deterministic, but it jumbles the image to make it look like garbage. In practice, this map is periodic, so as long as you apply the map repeatedly, you will eventually get the original image back. Another application of chaos is psuedorandom number generators (PRNGs), where a hard-to-predict initial value is manipulated chaotically to generate a “random” number. If you can manipulate the initial input values, you can predict the outcome of the PRNG. In the case of the Pokémon games, the PRNGs have been examined so thoroughly that, using a couple programs, you can capture or breed shininess/perfect stats.

So that’s the beauty of chaos. Next time you look at a bare tree toward the end of autumn or lightning in a thunderstorm, just remember that the seemingly unpredictable branches and forks are created by simple rules of nature, and bask in its complex beauty.


Equation of the Day #12: 12

A while ago I stumbled across this image (which I recreated and cleaned up a bit). It’s a beautiful image. Arranged around the edge is the circle of fifths, which in music is a geometric representation of the twelve tones of the Western scale arranged so the next note is seven semitones up (going clockwise in this figure). The notes are all connected in six different ways to the other notes in the “circle,” known as intervals, which are color-coded at the bottom. I thought, “Wow, this is a really cool way to represent this geometrically. How neat!” However, I found the original website that the image came from, and it’s a pseudoscience site that talks about the fractal holographic nature of the universe. While fractals do show up in Nature a lot, and there are legitimate theories proposing that the Universe may indeed be a hologram, what their site is proposing is, to put it lightly, utter nonsense. But instead of tearing their website apart (which would be rather cathartic), I instead want to point out the cool math going on here, because that sounds more fun!

Looking at the bottom of the graphic, you’ll notice six figures. The first (in red) is a regular dodecagon, a polygon with twelve equal sides and angles. This shape is what forms the circle of fifths. The rest of the shapes in the sequence are dodecagrams, or twelve-pointed stars. The first three are stars made up of simpler regular polygons; the orange star is made up of two hexagons, the yellow is made up of three squares, and the green one is made up of four triangles. The final dodecagram (in purple) can be thought of as made up of six straight-sided digons, or line segments. These shapes point to the fact that twelve is divisible by five unique factors (not including itself): one set of twelve, two sets of six, three sets of four, four sets of three, and six sets of two! You could say that the vertices of the dodecagon finalize the set as twelve sets of one, but they’re not illustrated in this image. So really, this image has less to do with musical intervals and more to do with the number 12, which is a rather special number. It is a superior highly composite number, which makes it a good choice as a number base (a reason why feet are divided into twelve inches, for instance, or why our clocks have twelve hours on their faces).

The final dodecagram in cyan is not made up of any simpler regular polygons because the number 12 is not divisible by five. If you pick a note in the circle of fifths to start on, you’ll notice that the two cyan lines that emanate from it connect to notes that are five places away on the “circle,” hence the connection to the number 5. In fact, it would be far more appropriate to redraw this figure with a clock face.

This new image should shed some more light on what’s really going on. The dodecagrams each indicate a different map from one number to another, modulo 12. The only reason this is connected to music at all is due to the fact that a Western scale has twelve tones in it! If we used a different scale, such as a pentatonic scale (with five tones, as the name would suggest), we’d get a pentagon enclosing a pentagram. Really, this diagram can be used to connect any two elements in a set of twelve. The total number of connecting lines in this diagram, then, are

\begin{pmatrix} 12\\2 \end{pmatrix} = T_{11} = \dfrac{1}{2} (12)(11) = 66

where the notation in parentheses is “n choose 2,” and T_n is a triangular number. This figure is known in math as K_{12}, the complete graph with twelve nodes. And it’s gorgeous.

So while this doesn’t really have anything to do with music or some pseudoscientific argument for some fancy-sounding, but ultimately meaningless, view on the universe, it does exemplify the beauty of the number 12, and has a cool application to the circle of fifths.