An Independent School • Grades 5-12

Studies in literature: Chaos Theory

November 2019

By Erik Christensen
Photo by Virgil Collins-Laine

Chaos Theory describes patterns and unpredictability in life. This upper level elective looks at how chaos and order appear in nature, physics, and mathematics on the one hand, and in literature on the other. The course — now in its 11th year — seeks to bridge the gap and find resonances between disciplines by reading one through the lens of the other.

How, say, does understanding fractals yield new truths about Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”? How does the behavior of complex systems like an ant colony or a city illuminate the explorations of Italo Calvino’s “Mr. Palomar”? Since Chaos Theory describes the natural unpredictability of life at the human scale, any literary work qualifies, but once John Newsom (co-creator and team-teacher for this class while he was director of technology at Lakeside) and I had intuited uncanny parallels between math/physics and literature, we zeroed in on works featuring various kinds of systems for their compression of human activity.

As a result, students study Jorge Luis Borges’ metaphysical puzzles in “Labyrinths,” Clarice Lispector’s intricately crafted short fiction, Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel “Oryx and Crake” about bioengineering, Ted Chiang’s brilliant sci-fi stories in “Stories of Your Life and Others” (one of which became the film Arrival), Colson Whitehead’s booklength essay about New York — “The Colossus of New York” — and, this year, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Knowing about fractals, the butterfly effect, scalable self-similarity, and emergence helps students not only understand governing life principles, but also — we hope — helps them more deeply appreciate the beautiful patterns in our world.