Andrew Maris and TEDxAsburyPark Speaker Team Lead Christine Burke talk about What Jurassic Park Gets Wrong About Chaos Theory, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.

The following is an excerpt from the interview.  To read and hear the full interview, CLICK HERE

Christine Burke: Welcome. I’m Christine Burke and I am the Speaker Team Lead for TEDxAsburyPark 2019. Our theme is CHAOS, and I’m pleased to chat with Andrew Maris, who is one of our speakers for our event, which will take place at the Paramount Theatre on the Asbury Park Boardwalk on Saturday, May 18th.  

Andrew Maris: Thanks for having me.  I’m looking forward to speaking about chaos and quantum mechanics, and the exciting ways that they intersect.

Christine Burke: Andrew, I was an English major, so I welcome this opportunity to have someone explain to me what chaos is, and what quantum mechanics means.

Andrew Maris: When I think about chaos, I think about a very specific phenomenon commonly brought up in physics and some engineering applications, and in meteorology as well. It’s this idea that’s often presented as the “butterfly effect.”  The story goes like this:  a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil will create a hurricane in Texas. There are various iterations of the story, but no matter how it is told, the idea is the same–this tiny effect, the butterfly flapping its wings, creates an enormously different future. One where maybe there wasn’t a hurricane in Texas. When I think about chaos, I think about that sort of specific effect.  It’s not just a concept that’s limited to the domain of scientific inquiry. It’s something that is very present in our lives, which is why it’s so interesting to study.

Christine Burke: So if someone says: “Wow, I’m really having a crazy day,” is that a chaos day?

Andrew Maris: Not exactly. Chaos, in this way of thinking about it, doesn’t have to do with randomness, per se. It can come up with systems that have no randomness in them whatsoever, and that’s actually how it was discovered. In the 1960’s, I believe, there was a scientist running computer simulations of a weather model. He put in the numbers, ran the simulation, and then he wanted to see the second half of it again. So he took the computer printout, plugged in the numbers for where the simulation was at the halfway point, and he got a completely different outcome. And he was flummoxed by this; he had no idea why this was happening, because he was just putting in what the computer told him the simulation was doing at the halfway mark.  It took him a year or two to realize that the actual problem was that the computer printout cut off three digits at the very, very end of the numbers that he was calculating. Instead of giving accuracy to .000001, it was just giving accuracy to .001. That doesn’t sound like it should make a big difference, and throughout the history of science, that’s what people thought…that those tiny little differences at the end should not result in a major change. But it turned out that the impact of those little numbers at the end was an enormous difference in how the future of the simulation went–even though there was no randomness in his weather model.

Christine Burke: So a change in the smallest detail can totally change the outcome of something.

Andrew Maris: Exactly. That’s why chaos is so special.  We know now that in chaotic systems, tiny differences can blow up into extraordinary differences in the futures of the system. It’s a really interesting phenomenon.

Christine Burke: Then do people ever really have a chance meeting?

Andrew Maris: We can think about how chaos affects our own lives, not just weather models. What can happen is, say, you can think back to some moment in your life where you just happened to meet somebody who was important, whether that’s a significant other, a friend, or a business colleague. There are plenty of times in our lives when we  meet people…and this has a big impact on our future. Maybe meeting this new business partner opens up a whole new venture for you, that takes your career in a new direction.

And, maybe this podcast will help audience members see something differently about their lives. Somebody might start listening to this podcast because they’re interested in what people have to say about chaos…that’s not really a random thing, but, in the end, it could have a big impact on their life. Even if we just limited ourselves to looking at things that behave so-called deterministically, which just means no randomness, they still have this unpredictability in them. Even if we can be certain how a system should look in the future, a system that has a tiny little difference in it will look very different in the future. Consequently, it’s difficult to predict things in chaotic systems.

Christine Burke: Is there any randomness in the fact that you are an aspiring physicist?

Andrew Maris: It’s hard to say.  I’ve always been somebody who’s been really interested in understanding the world we live in, but there are always little chance meetups and chance events that propel you in a certain direction.

Christine Burke: You’re a New Jersey native, right?  From Fair Haven? So you had a pretty normal, suburban childhood. Was there something in your family that sparked your interest in science and math?

Andrew Maris: Not exactly. My  parents both have MBAs, so I grew up in a household that wasn’t a “science household.”  My parents have always encouraged my interest in science. So we would go to museums and stuff like that, and they were always very supportive of me growing up and being interested in science, even though that was a bit out of their wheelhouse. My parents definitely helped me create a ‘sciency’ sort of upbringing by engaging me in what I wanted to do.

Christine Burke: They gave you the exposure and then you ran with it?

Andrew Maris: Yes.  That’s what I would say.

Christine Burke: That’s great. I believe that you are the youngest speaker on the stage on May 18th. Tell me what made you decide to send in a submission to be a TEDxAsburyPark speaker.

Andrew Maris: The reason why I wanted to speak is because I think chaos is such a fascinating concept. Specifically, the type of chaos I’m talking about in scientific terms. This sort of deterministic disorder, this unpredictability about the world we live in. It has a lot to say about our lives and the world we live in–because tiny differences do make a big impact.  Those are just the facts here…we live in a chaotic world. And I think one thing that studying this scientifically has made me do is confront this idea that chaos does impact our personal lives. And I think that’s something important to share because not only is chaos definitely the way that our social lives work, but also how our personal lives work. But it’s also very much not a negative thing. That’s kind of what I thought about chaos when I first started. For example, if you think about chaos and disorder…that sounds like a bad thing.

Christine Burke: Well, I think most people do perceive chaos to be a bad thing.

Andrew Maris: But it’s not really that much of a bad thing because chaos is our way of being open to new experiences and letting new experiences propel us in a positive direction. To take a scientific example, the human heart is somewhat chaotic. This might sound surprising, but our hearts are very sensitive to the chemicals we give it. Just a slight change in the chemicals we give it can change its heartbeat very quickly. So in a way the heart is chaotic, but there’s a good reason for that. It’s not a biological flaw, it’s a biological feature. If you imagine that we are back in hunter-gatherer days and all of a sudden we see a predator appear in front of us, we need to get away from it. Well, we want our heart to start beating very quickly. And we want it to reach that high heart rate very quickly, so we can start running.

Christine Burke: Fight or flight response?

Andrew Maris: Yes, precisely. And that’s where the chaos comes in. We need to give our heart just a tiny little change in the chemicals, so that it all of a sudden realizes, “Oh wait, I need to start beating faster.” And if it was not a chaotic system, that would be impossible. We’d have the same heart rate over and over again, and it would be very difficult to achieve a higher heartbeat. So chaos isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s simply a reflection of us being flexible, being open to change and being able to use that change to adapt to new circumstances. If a predator appears, to be able to trigger the fight or flight response. Or if the predator disappears suddenly, then we can have our heartbeat go down to a normal, healthy rate, quickly. Chaos is a good thing, it’s not just a bad thing as one might think.

Christine Burke: I love it. So what will you be doing with your knowledge of quantum chaos?

Andrew Maris: Quantum chaos  has a lot of really unique features because the math of quantum mechanics is so strange, and I’ll be digging in to them for my talk. Chaos and quantum chaos are related, but have different features in important ways. Chaos, in what we call the classical world, is a feature of a set of systems that are called nonlinear systems. And you don’t need to know the precise definition, but essentially it means that the equations governing these systems are very complicated and there is no really simple relationship between different aspects of the system. But in the quantum world, things are different because the foundation of the way we do quantum mechanics is based on linear equations.

For a while, actually,  the mainstream consensus in the quantum community was that there is no quantum chaos, because quantum systems are inherently linear. But it turns out that that’s not true. That’s just an approximation that works out well in some circumstances. You have to make these modifications and change up the way that you usually do the math for quantum mechanics, and that all of a sudden allows quantum chaos.  

Christine Burke: You’ve given us all something really interesting to think about; something that I’m sure many people have never thought about.

Andrew Maris: I hope that explanation was clear.

Christine Burke: Do you often find yourself explaining these terms to people in your family, to friends who are not science majors, and to children?

Andrew Maris: I always love talking about physics. I also understand that people sometimes have limited patience for it, but I like talking about quantum chaos and chaos, specifically, because it does have such a big impact on the lives that we live. Chaos itself is really important to understand because of what that means and be able to think about how it impacts our lives, because small differences do make a big impact.

And the fact that small changes make a big difference isn’t a bad thing. We allow ourselves to be open to new experiences, to change the way that we live, because we want to be able to  improve our lives and making a big difference out of a small change is very important, and that’s something that’s a good thing that humans do.

There’s another related idea to chaos that comes up very often in natural systems…a lot of biological systems like the human heart that we were talking about before…this idea of the edge of chaos. If you remember from before, I was talking about the human heart, how it can, quickly change to a higher heart rate very quickly.

Christine Burke: Yes.

Andrew Maris: But we want it to be stable, too. When there’s not a predator, we want it to be keeping at the same rhythm. And so that’s where the idea, the edge of chaos, comes in. You have these systems that are delicately balanced between chaos and regularity. The heart beating over and over again, it’s important. But these systems are also agile, they can respond quickly to new information, or to new events.  

Christine Burke: Which is great for everyone.

Andrew Maris: And that’s how we should live our lives. As anxiety-inducing as it may sound to say that we need to live on the edge of chaos, it’s simply a statement that it’s good to have this combination of some regular aspects that we can come back to and draw our strength from, and then also have a willingness to try new things and have small changes make a big impact in our life. So we can improve the way that we are living. That’s why I think that chaos, even for us biological beings, is a good thing.

Christine Burke: When people hear your talk on May 18th, do you think you’ll really be able to turn them around on the positive nature of this whole chaos idea?

Andrew Maris: I certainly hope so. I’ve made a big change in the way i’ve thought about chaos over time, as I’ve learned more about it and as I’ve thought more about it. I hope this can be helpful to the audience as well.

Christine Burke: And has it really changed the way you live your life?

Andrew Maris: It has certainly changed the way I think about the fact that small changes do have a big impact. It’s no secret that that’s true in the world. Being able to recognize that, to accept that for what it is, and also acknowledge that it’s not just a bad thing, it can be very good at times. That’s a really important step to accepting this chaotic world we live in.

Christine Burke: TEDxAsburyPark is on May 18th. You’re also graduating in May or June?

Andrew Maris: In June, yes.  

Christine Burke: Great! And where will you be taking your newly-minted physics diploma? And what will you be doing with it?

Andrew Maris: I will be working at a company that will build photonics components.

Christine Burke: Andrew, I can’t believe it was just a random chance that you applied for TEDxAsburyPark this year. How did you find out about our event?

Andrew Maris:   I found out about it through a couple of friends.  They mentioned it. And I thought “this is a great opportunity,” because I enjoy talking about physics outside of the classroom. I think it’s good for us, in this day and age, to be able to talk more about these really exciting scientific findings, and grow scientific literacy as well.

This seemed a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about something that not only is an interesting scientific concept, but also something that has an impact on how we look at the world.  

Christine Burke: Andrew, thank you so much for your time today. I really look forward to hearing you on May 18th.

Read more about Andrew Maris here.

Graphic Created by Kel Grant.

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