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Origin of Chaos

when radar research detected a new theory East Anglia,

Black-and-white photograph of Mary Lucy Cartwright.
Mary Lucy Cartwright. Royal Society

The effort to develop radar in the Second World War provided early insights into what would come to be called ‘chaos theory’, the powerful mathematical idea that even simple equations can generate apparently random behaviour and that the tiniest variation in numbers fed into them can have a huge impact, through the so-called ‘butterfly effect’. 

When Mary Lucy Cartwright (1900-98) started at Oxford University in 1919 she was one of only five women studying for a degree in mathematics. Despite a difficult start she became the first woman to complete the course, earning a first-class degree. 

In 1938 the Radio Research Board of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research asked the London Mathematical Society to help with a differential equation related to the modelling of radio and radar. Cartwright, who had gone on to become Director of Studies in Mathematics at Cambridge University, began to look into the problem with a colleague, John Littlewood (1885-1977). 

Cartwright and Littlewood uncovered some surprising, and at times, bizarre results. Fifteen years later American mathematician Stephen Smale (born 1930) was inspired by this work to create the ‘horseshoe map’, one of the key underpinnings of chaos theory. Today, with the help of computing, chaos theory is applied across science, from meteorology and biology to physics and robotics. 

Science Museum

East Anglia
University of Cambridge
Key Individuals
Mary Lucy Cartwright, John Littlewood,