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Question:
In the theory of chaos, everything is affected by something that previously occurred, and nothing is random. My teacher says that the way that chromosomes line up and split is pure random. I say that it is effected by other factors that we cannot predict. Who is right?



Replies:
Well, I think you are perhaps confusing two different things here. First of all, the idea that everything is affected (and in fact determined) by things that previously occurred is much more basic than the theory of chaos - it underlies all of classical mechanics which has been around since Isaac Newton. But, what if those things that previously occurred were random? The randomness around us could be traced all the way back to the big bang. Actually, it does not have to be traced back that far, because the theory of quantum mechanics (which was developed early in this century) tells us that on a very small scale, nature really is non-deterministic: random things just do happen, when we are talking about individual atoms and molecules. Now if we are talking about division of chromosomes - there could be a lot of non-randomness involved because these are really big objects (compared to individual atoms) and they have properties that might, in some deterministic fashion which we cannot yet predict, make it much more likely for one kind of event to happen than another. But if we do not understand this yet and cannot predict it, it is not such a bad approximation to assume that things are purely random. In any case, the statement that "nothing is random" is wrong - and is more and more wrong as you look at smaller and smaller systems but even for large systems it is often not a bad approximation to assume random behavior when things are too complex to predict.

Arthur Smith



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