Coming to Terms with the Strange Attractor

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-11-02-2005, Volume 29, Issue 11

As industry moves to real-time feedback control, even conventional syntheses will increasingly resemble living systems.

So here we all are, each alone between the uneasy earth and the uncaring sky. It's a time of earthquakes and mudslides, of tsunamis and hurricanes and hurricanes and hurricanes. Why do portents and disasters seem to pile up on our doorsteps? Is it a "topical illusion" of instant worldwide news? Is it just statistical clustering? Is outraged nature exacting a price for global warming? Is this the beginning of the End of Days?

Douglas McCormick

We know only a narrow corner of time and space*. From this sliver of everywhere and forever, we assume that the world will always run between familiar limits. We confuse unusual with unnatural. And throughout it all, we are hard-wired to try to understand: Given the slimmest of data, we will impose pattern and meaning even on chance scatterings. Once in a while—by whatever combination of reason, work, insight, and luck—we may actually tie events together in a valid web of cause and effect. Or—like stargazing shepherds seeing in the night sky a menagerie with the power to rule terrestrial events, or like the unfortunate Idaho TV weatherman who attributes the current spate of storms to vengeful Tokyo yakuza using super-secret Cold War Soviet storm-making machines—we deceive ourselves with our own ingenuity.


In the promotions for his documentary, Grizzly Man, filmmaker Werner Herzog meditates on the glittering eye of the bear, in which he cautions us to read neither love nor malice, but rather "the monumental indifference of nature." The idea of an indifferent world is surprisingly hard to accept.

It is curious that, as a species, we love the idea of stability so much. Life, after all, demands chaos, chaos in the technical sense of complex nonlinear relationships. We think of heartbeats as regular, but they are not. The heart responds continuously to interlinked changes in mood, exertion, and environment. A heart beats like a metronome only when the complex interlocking control systems have broken down and the system is nearing collapse. Plot the intervals between successive drips from a leaky faucet or between successive beats of a healthy human heart, and they fall along the discontinuous sweep of a Strange Attractor.

To illustrate our August cover story on new validation concepts, we turned to Australian astrophysicist Paul Bourke's rendering of a Lorenz Strange Attractor, the product of three linked non-linear equations. "The series does not form limit cycles nor does it ever reach a steady state," writes Bourke. "Instead it is an example of deterministic chaos. As with other chaotic systems the Lorenz system is sensitive to the initial conditions, two initial states no matter how close will diverge, usually sooner rather than later."

As we attain ever finer control over ever more-sophisticated syntheses, our processes will come more and more to resemble living systems. Can the current ideal of process stability, in which varying inputs and microscopically inconsistent process conditions are expected to produce a miraculously unvarying product, survive this evolution? Probably not.

We already live on the Strange Attractor. We will have to learn to work there, too.

* I remember a discussion group in which one of the members, an immunologist with a Nobel Prize, referred to an idea as "rock-solid." "It's funny," replied a Stanford geophysicist, "on the time-scales I deal with, rock is a turbulent fluid."

Douglas McCormick is editor in chief of Pharmaceutical Technology,