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Chaos=Order: Physicists make baffling discovery

"Da police are not here to create disorder; dere here to preserve disorder." -Richard J. Daley, Chicago mayor, explaining to the media the role of the police during the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Police keep order. That's why, for example, they issue tickets for "disturbing the peace." Thus the only logical conclusion to Mayor Daley's famous quote above other than dismissing it as the result of a tangled tongue is sometimes disorder spawns order.

Sounds impossible, right?

Wrong.

According to a computational study conducted by a group of physicists at Washington University in St. Louis, one may create order by introducing disorder.

While working on their model a network of interconnected pendulums, or "oscillators" the researchers noticed that when driven by ordered forces the various pendulums behaved chaotically and swung out of sync like a group of intoxicated synchronized swimmers. This was unexpected shouldn't synchronized forces yield synchronized pendulums?

But then came the real surprise: When they introduced disorder forces were applied at random to each oscillator the system became ordered and synchronized.

"The thing that is counterintuitive is that when you introduce disorder into the system when the [forces on the pendulums] act at random the chaos that was present before disappears and there is order," said Sebastian F. Brandt, physics graduate student and lead author of the study which appeared in the January 2006 edition of Physical Review Letters.

Insights into other realms

The physicists' research is not only hard to grasp for non-physicists, but puzzling for physicists, too. As supervisor Ralf Wessel, Ph.D., Washington University associate professor of physics in Arts & Sciences said, "Every physicist who hears this is surprised."

Research on the role of disorder in complex systems is quite new and not well understood. Wessel h
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Contact: Tony Fitzpatrick
tony_fitzpatrick@wustl.edu
314-935-5272
Washington University in St. Louis
4-Apr-2006


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