What Does A Real Chaos Theorist Think Of Jurassic Park?

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

In the original Jurassic Park, suave mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) predicts the downfall of the dino park through chaos theory: The idea that small changes in complex systems can have big, unpredictable effects (like, for instance, a Tyrannosaurus rex trying to eat your car). Thanks to the raptor-filled franchise, “chaos theory” is a term that everyone knows but how do actual chaos theorists feel about Jurassic Park? To find out, we spoke to University of Maryland Professor of Mathematics and Physics James A. Yorke, who coined the mathematical term “chaos” in 1975 with his student T.Y. Li. Turns out, he’s a fan. “I think the series has been superb so far, and I’m looking forward to the next one,” Yorke says of the Jurassic films. So does the first film present an accurate example of chaos theory?

Watch Ian Malcolm flirt with Ellie Sattler and explain the chaos theory in 1993′s ‘Jurassic Park:’

“What happens in Jurassic Park is that they have a saboteur. And this does not fit into chaos theory,” says Yorke. “But, the unexpected consequences of events, that does fit into chaos theory. Chaos theory says that when you deal with very complicated situations, unexpected things are going to happen.”

In other words, chaos theory doesn’t account for Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) de-activating the security system to steal dinosaur embryos. But it does encompass the dinosaurs changing their sex and breeding, an unexpected consequence of the film’s scientists splicing dinosaur DNA with frog DNA. “The frog genome has some 20,000 genes,” explains Yorke. “So screwing with these, and the regulators of the genes — you end up with a lot of possibilities for strange effects.”

In the film, Malcolm explains chaos theory to Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) by using the analogy of the “butterfly effect” — which Yorke confirms is an “important idea” in chaos theory. However, the explanation raises questions of its own. “What the butterfly effect says, is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas…. But the question becomes, how often does a butterfly’s flapping its wings affect the tornados?” asks Yorke. “And I lean toward the idea that every butterfly flapping its wings is going to have a big impact on the weather. In other words, every little influence has a major impact on what’s going to happen.”

So did Jurassic Park lead to a surge of interest in Yorke’s work? The professor laughs at the question: “I don’t think so.” However, he does believe that the movies made people “more aware” of chaos theory. And he remembers one graduate student in particular “who showed up from Australia because he liked the movie and thought he should study chaos. And he wound up doing that.”

Yorke also notes that Jurassic Park isn’t the only film to demonstrate chaos theory. As another example, he names Sliding Doors, in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s life takes two dramatically different courses based on one chance event. Yorke also references the Simpsons episode “Time and Punishment,” in which Homer goes back in time, swats a mosquito, and changes the future. 

“My rule of thumb is that those who are most successful are good at plan B,” says Yorke. “My wife thinks it’s stupid, because ‘Everybody knows that!’ But they don’t. What chaos theory tells you is that you cannot predict very far ahead successfully. You have to expect things to fail, and you’ve got to be ready to change.”

Especially if you’re in the dinosaur amusement park business.