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Chaos Theory

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To be great is to be misunderstood.
Oscar Wilde

PlaylistKATE MILLER-HEIDKE - "WORDS"

 


 

For his tenth birthday, Draco asks his parents for a double pendulum. He has to explain what sets it apart from a standard pendulum (because if he doesn’t, he’s sure they’ll get him the wrong present), and that leads to a lengthy conversation about what makes it so special.

He spends a frustrating ten minutes trying to explain chaotic physical systems and dynamic behavior before his mother cuts him off—

“Oh,” she says, “so it’s to help your little experiments!”

Hearing his work in chaos theory referred to as “little experiments” by a woman who couldn’t tell Edward Lorenz from a hole in the ground is clearly a jab to the ego. He crosses his arms over his chest to announce his displeasure.

“My work is theoretical, not practical,” he says. “It speaks to your understanding of the field that you think I would actually be able to replicate anything with a physical instrument as imprecise as a double pendulum.”

“Draco,” says his father, in that clipped, worldweary voice designed to make him feel guilty about being so difficult, “what purpose could a pendulum—”

Double pendulum.”

“—could a double pendulum possibly serve you?”

The truth is that it really doesn’t serve a purpose, or at least not a practical one. As a mathematician, Draco wants a double pendulum for the same reason historians want a globe. It is a symbol of his chosen field. And beyond that, a double pendulum is, in itself, a reminder of chaos, not just in mathematics but in life, something to humble the informed observer to the entropy of the universe. Trust Draco’s parents to not understand the value of symbolism.

And damn it, he just wants one. Why are they being so difficult?

“I bet you wouldn’t be this obstinate if I had asked for a Newton’s cradle.”

“It certainly would be easier to find than a pendulum.”

Double pendulum!”

“What’s wrong with a Newton’s cradle?” his mother asks. “That’s the same kind of science, isn’t it?”

“It is not at all the same kind of science!” he says shrilly. “The purpose of a Newton’s cradle is to demonstrate the preservation of energy. Thermodynamics have as much to do with chaos theory as a C-major scale has to do with Mozart’s symphonies!”

“Stop being so dramatic, Draco,” his father says, as he crosses the drawing room to pour himself a glass of brandy. “Where would we even find one?”

“I don’t know. Gift shops? Catalogues?”

“I suppose we could have one specially built,” his mother offers with a small frown.

By then, his father has filled his snifter and finished off two mouthfuls of brandy. “I suppose it would have been too much to hope for that you’d ask for a racing broom like a normal child,” he says, eyeing him disdainfully.

Draco has never understood his parents’ preoccupation with being normal. In any case, “normal” seems to be a nebulous concept that shifts depending on what Draco has done to disappoint them. Normal is, by turns, inoffensive, nonthreatening, unintelligent, quiet, and complacent. Whatever normal means, it sounds terrible.

“What possible use could I get out of a racing broom?” he asks.

His father glares at him. That Draco had never taken to flying has been a constant point of contention between them.

“Merlin give me strength,” he mutters, finishing off his brandy in a very large swallow.

“Straight past the palate and into the gullet, Father. That is the way to drink a eighty-galleon bottle of brandy.”

“Where did I go wrong in raising you?” he wonders out loud.

He bites back a comment about him not raising Draco at all. Most of his needs are met by house-elves. He’d only earned the title of father in the most superficial sense.

The fireplace behind him rushes, and when he turns, he immediately forgets all his frustration.

“Professor!”

Severus Snape has scarcely stood upright before Draco throws himself at him, and he stumbles back a few inches with a small noise of surprise. His long, black robe is ashy, but he blows away the bulk of it with a quick spell.

“Good morning, Draco,” he says, neutrally.

“Thank goodness, Severus,” his father says. “Will you please do something with this little hellion?”

“Lucius,” his mother chides, but she sounds more exhausted than upset.

“I’ve been tutoring him five days a week since he was four,” Professor Snape says, resting a hand on Draco’s hair. “What makes you think I’ll have any luck this time around?”

Draco looks up at him with a smile. “Did you bring the textbook?” he asks.

“It’s shrunken, in my robe pocket,” he answers. “I can’t get to it if you don’t let me go.”

He eagerly steps back, and Professor Snape reaches into his robe, producing a small, thimble-sized book that quickly expands in his hand. DETERMINISTIC CHAOS, the title reads, AN INTRODUCTION. It’s a heavy, weathered, paperback tome, one that’s obviously seen quite a bit of use. Not surprising, since Draco knows that it’s from Professor Snape’s old days at Cambridge.

At once Draco snatches it from his grasp and Professor Snape sighs at the impropriety, but Draco is too busy thumbing through the appendices to notice.

“An entire chapter on strange attractors!” Draco says, and he’s so excited that he feels like he might cry. The only other book on the subject he’s been able to find barely touches it.

“Let’s go to the library and start the lesson proper,” Professor Snape says, putting a guiding hand on Draco’s shoulder. “Lucius, Narcissa.”

“Good luck, Severus; Merlin knows you’ll need it,” his father says just before the sitting room door swings shut.

“What is it you did to get them so worked up, if I may ask?”

Draco makes a face. He’s nearly found the chapter on strange attractors, though the speed at which he can turn pages is hindered by the speed at which he’s walking.

“They asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told them I wanted a double pendulum.”

Professor Snape sighs. “Draco, you must go easier on them. You can’t expect them to know what a double pendulum is, let alone where to find one.”

“The question was what do you want for your birthday, not what do you want for your birthday that we can readily comprehend. It’s not my fault they’re undereducated.”

“They’re not undereducated, Draco, you’re just—”

Professor Snape stops short, sighs, and shakes his head. He doesn’t bother saying it. There’s no need to; they both know and saying it won’t change anything. In any case, they’ve had this conversation too many times. Professor Snape has gleefully given up trying to make Draco appreciate or even tolerate his parents.

“What do you even want a double pendulum for?”

“It’s a comforting metaphor,” Draco answers. “I’d like to have one on my desk.”

“You find chaos comforting?”

“I find the certainty of uncertainty comforting. Existence is meaningless, no one knows what’s going on, and we are all eternally at the mercy of an uncaring universe. I just find it easier to embrace it than to hide behind our abstract concepts of order like they can really protect me.”

“You’re far too young to be such a nihilist.”

“What’s wrong with nihilism? Just because life is meaningless doesn’t mean it’s not worth living or understanding. I’d rather have interesting chaos than boring structure.”

Together they enter the immense, two-story library of the Malfoy Manor. The large picture window overlooking the garden illuminates the room with the hazy yellow-white glow of early morning. Together, they take their usual seat at the table near the window by the nonfiction side, stacked with parchment and quills.

“You know,” Professor Snape says, “if it’s a symbol of chaos you’re after, you’ve overlooked an alternative that would be much easier for them to acquire.”

Draco raises an eyebrow at him. Professor Snape reaches into his robe and produces a small, black rubber ball. He bounces it once on the table demonstratively.

Draco grins. As an introduction to chaotic mathematics, they spent two weeks working out the physical dynamics of a bouncing ball.

“Now all I need is a sinusoidally vibrating table and a large, frictionless room,” Draco says, taking the ball from Professor Snape’s hand when it’s offered to him.

“For that, you are on your own,” Professor Snape says. “In the future, Draco, if you want to avoid confrontation with your parents, you should let them do something simple for you.”

Draco frowns. Psychology was always Professor Snape’s area of expertise, not his. “How would letting them help me be of any benefit?”

“It will make them feel useful to their otherwise self-sufficient son. Run an experiment for yourself and see.”

Draco does like experiments.

“I’ll need a control group,” he muses, studying the worn rubber of the ball. “I don’t suppose you happen to know where I can get an identical set of parents.”

Professor Snape doesn’t rise to the joke. “Chapter eight,” he says instead. “Let’s talk about strange attractors.”

Smirking, Draco sets the ball aside and picks up a quill.