Nature’s Chaos - James Gleick and Eliot Porter
Natures ChaosThis is an interesting little book that looks at the relationship between order and chaos.

I arrived at this book because I read and enjoyed James Gleick’s book Genius’ on the life of Richard Feynman, See the review). I also have his book ‘Chaos’ in my growing pile of books I plan to read. I read this one first as since it is largely a book of pictures, I was able to slot it in, in a few spare minutes.

In essence it is a picture book of photographs taken by Eliot Porter supported by an essay by James. The book is interesting as it conveys a powerful idea very concisely, and then offers the opportunity through the pictures of nature, and the way of seeing they invite, to observe the idea through nature in our everyday lives.

In a nutshell the essay explores the relationship between order and chaos. This is a subject that I increasingly think is very important for understanding change, why it works and why it doesn’t. I think the first thing the book has taught me is a new understanding of what chaos really is. I guess that I’d understood chaos to be chaotic; the absence of order. In reality there is order in chaos, what is missing is our ability to understand it. What we call chaos calls for us to understand order in new ways and to do so we must be able to see in new ways. When we begin to do this, it is not simply our understanding of order that is transformed, but our understanding of what it is to understand. This is where things get really interesting in addressing the challenge of change.

The oft quoted example to illustrate chaos, is that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world impacts on the growth, or not, of a hurricane in another part. This is quite a difficult and threatening idea to grasp, however when we understand that these same intangible and elusive relationships exist within our organisations and our lives, we glimpse the kind of new seeing and new understanding that is required in order to effect successful change. Once you begin to see in this new way, then patterns you might have called chaos begin to appear in many things you look at, revealing an underlying order not yet understood. Your invitation is therefore not to understand new things, but to understand things in new ways.

The book links to the ideas described in another book I’ve reviewed, Emergence’ and begins to create a web that I believe has potentially great significance in understanding change.

I don’t want to oversell this book. It probably has fewer than five thousand words, and around a hundred pictures of nature, from moss covered roots, to ice covered trees and worn pieces of rock. Much of the impression it has left with me, may be as much to do with the links it forges, as with its content, but perhaps that is its power. In our profoundly interconnected world, it is the space between objects rather than the objects themselves that hold the key to understanding.

I found this book valuable and perhaps like me, it will help you make powerful connections.

Steve Unwin
April 24 2006