Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos—states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self-organization. The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behavior is that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Texas.
Sensitivity to initial conditions means that each point in a chaotic system is arbitrarily closely approximated by other points, with significantly different future paths or trajectories. Thus, an arbitrarily small change or perturbation of the current trajectory may lead to significantly different future behavior.
Despite initial insights in the first half of the twentieth century, chaos theory became formalized as such only after mid-century, when it first became evident to some scientists that linear theory, the prevailing system theory at that time, simply could not explain the observed behavior of certain experiments like that of the logistic map. What had been attributed to measure imprecision and simple "noise" was considered by chaos theorists as a full component of the studied systems.
In December 1977, the New York Academy of Sciences organized the first symposium on chaos, attended by David Ruelle, Robert May, James A. Yorke (coiner of the term "chaos" as used in mathematics), Robert Shaw, and the meteorologist Edward Lorenz. The following year Pierre Coullet and Charles Tresser published "Iterations d'endomorphismes et groupe de renormalisation", and Mitchell Feigenbaum's article "Quantitative Universality for a Class of Nonlinear Transformations" finally appeared in a journal, after 3 years of referee rejections. Thus Feigenbaum (1975) and Coullet & Tresser (1978) discovered the universality in chaos, permitting the application of chaos theory to many different phenomena.
Robotics is another area that has recently benefited from chaos theory. Instead of robots acting in a trial-and-error type of refinement to interact with their environment, chaos theory has been used to build a predictive model. Chaotic dynamics have been exhibited by passive walking biped robots.
Researchers have continued to apply chaos theory to psychology. For example, in modeling group behavior in which heterogeneous members may behave as if sharing to different degrees what in Wilfred Bion's theory is a basic assumption, researchers have found that the group dynamic is the result of the individual dynamics of the members: each individual reproduces the group dynamics in a different scale, and the chaotic behavior of the group is reflected in each member.
By adapting a model of career counseling to include a chaotic interpretation of the relationship between employees and the job market, Aniundson and Bright found that better suggestions can be made to people struggling with career decisions. Modern organizations are increasingly seen as open complex adaptive systems with fundamental natural nonlinear structures, subject to internal and external forces that may contribute chaos. For instance, team building and group development is increasingly being researched as an inherently unpredictable system, as the uncertainty of different individuals meeting for the first time makes the trajectory of the team unknowable.
Traffic forecasting may benefit from applications of chaos theory. Better predictions of when traffic will occur would allow measures to be taken to disperse it before it would have occurred. Combining chaos theory principles with a few other methods has led to a more accurate short-term prediction model (see the plot of the BML traffic model at right).