Chaos of life

Reading Yeats got me thinking about spirals both in the past and the present. After reading “The Second Coming”, I wanted to visit some Irish monuments that featured spiral patterns. I went back to Newgrange and explored some of the many spiral pattern carved onto the stones. It is very interesting that spirals have captivated humankind for so long. The spirals have been assigned various meanings throughout time. Spirals can symbolize the sun, the progress of time, familial relationships or religious relationships (ie. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit).

The Newgrange triskele.

After Newgrange, I checked out a couple of ancient stones in Ireland. These stones both have spiral patterns carved into them. Apparently, the purpose of the stones is not known, but it’s believed that they held some sort of religious or ceremonial purpose. In the case of the Turoe Stone, not much information is able to be gleaned about the purpose because the stone has been moved from its original site. I noticed that while Newgrange’s spirals were tightly wound and even, the spirals carved onto the stones were more relaxed and flowing.

Then, I pondered a bit about the spirals that Yeats featured in his poetry. In lecture we learned that, “Part of [Yeats] poetic quest was to find a secret pattern of things…By his final book, Yeats is going to feel that he has given in poetic form– not reality– but the pattern of it. The work of art (meaning poetry) is an exploration of the chaos of life, but it’s put in some kind of consummate order.”

This made me think of another exploration of the chaos of life: chaos theory. The most famous term from chaos theory is the butterfly effect, which describes how minuscule changes (ex. a butterfly flapping its wings) could ultimately lead to huge differences later in time (ex. a storm instead of a calm day).

The Chaotic Wheel
Example of the butterfly effect: The green line and the blue line start at nearly the same point (like the world where a butterfly flapped its wings and a world where it did not). In the beginning, the two lines are very similar, but as time goes on they diverge significantly (like the calm day vs. the storm).

However, the fundamental core of chaos theory is not about finding differences, but is rather about finding patterns in very complex systems. Because the systems are very complex, the features of the systems appear random. One example would be weather patterns; the weather is very complex, but scientists are able to make a basic pattern out of the chaos to more or less predict next week’s weather. There are many phenomenon that can be graphed as a bunch of wiggly lines with no apparent meaning (such as the graph above), but applying mathematics allows one to make a pattern out of the nonsense (like in the figure below). Just like Yeats’ poetry, chaos theory is an expedition to find patterns in the chaos of life.

A squiggly oscillating measurement can be represented as a much simpler shape. In this case, the shape is a spiral.

Additionally, chaos theory models don’t necessarily represent every single point or action possible in time, but rather represent the gestalt of the movement. Similarly, Yeats’ poetry doesn’t feature every moment of concrete reality, but captures glimpses of the essence or pattern of reality. Yeats’ poetry is a model of reality just as chaos theory provides a representation of a natural phenomenon. These models are useful because they help us find order in the chaotic world we live in. For example, while Yeats uses his gyre to represent anarchy of a world falling apart, scientists use chaos theory to model ocean gyres.

From Newgrange’s stone carvings, to Yeats’ literature, to mathematical models of chaos theory, humankind spends so much time trying to make sense out of the nonsense. Thus, in addition to all the meanings attached to spirals, to me spirals also seem to represent human desire for order and meaning out of chaos, whether through religion, poetry, or science.

Triskelion - Wikipedia

(The featured image is one solution of the Lorenz system, a model for heat in the atmosphere. Solutions for this attractor are featured often because they resemble a butterfly! Also, apologies for the rather long tangent about chaos theory. I just think the parallels are interesting. I hope it wasn’t too out of place!)

1 Comment

  1. Michelle, what a beautiful post you have created. It wonderfully ties complicated concepts such as “chaos theory” (a rather daunting word for an English major afraid of numbers, at least for me) and weather patterns to explain them in ways that are more applicable to our lives, especially our relation to art. The examples and models are wonderful. Your final paragraph speaks to the earliest unanswerable questions of our existence. And I certainly agree that spirals, images, theories, etc. reveal more about human desire–and I think especially our desire to feel in control–than it reveals about the precise objects they are trying to explain away.

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