Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with nonlinear dynamical systems. A system is just a set of interacting components that form a larger whole. Nonlinear means that due to feedback or multiplicative effects between the components, the whole becomes something greater than just adding up the individual parts. Lastly, dynamical means the system changes over time based on its current state. In the following piece (adapted from this article), I break down some of this jargon, visualize interesting characteristics of chaos, and discuss its implications for knowledge and prediction.
Chaotic systems are a simple sub-type of nonlinear dynamical systems. They may contain very few interacting parts and these may follow very simple rules, but these systems all have a very sensitive dependence on their initial conditions. Despite their deterministic simplicity, over time these systems can produce totally unpredictable and wildly divergent (aka, chaotic) behavior. Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, described chaos as “when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”