This is 3 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
In 1891, as James Naismith considered the equation of ball and hoop, a French physicist named Henri Poincaré was contemplating a similar issue involving roundish objects. Kepler's laws of planetary motion had only dealt with the orbit of one planet around one star; Poincaré threw a third item in the model, and found that slight differences in the starting state of the bodies resulted in massive differences in orbital trajectory later on
- these aberrations could easily be mistaken for random movement, until you traced the paths back to their initial positions. The "three-body problem" would serve to underpin what would come to be known as chaos theory.
A popular modern application of chaos theory is the so-called "butterfly effect,"
which holds that tiny movements have far-reaching consequences. How could the good Canadian doctor have known that his humble adaptation of "duck on a rock"
would be so good, so fun, so engaging, that it would someday unleash a connundrum of massive proportions? Over three hundred planets of differing shape and size, spinning and whizzing around in regional, conferential - not a word - and even make-believe orbits, bumping into each other now and then, but never colliding. (Tests as to whether the flapping wings of a Hawk at Maryland-Eastern Shore
result in an Iowa State
Cyclone have, so far, been inconclusive.)
Now, Henri Poincaré was one smart dude; even ol' Einstein himself cribbed his notes on relativity on his way to E=MC2
. But I'm wondering how he might have approached a 334-body problem... why, it just might have blown his Brie. But at its core, the idea that chaos could very well be an illusion is a calming notion - perhaps, underneath it all, the universe is one tidy, well-oiled, extraordinary machine.
Because we're pattern-seeking creatures, you and I. We fear the Absence of Meaning, and demand that things around us make sense. As a species, we've developed complex arrangements to ensure that things have order - rules, laws, religions. We're fascinated by rigid systematic codifications that have stood time's test, and are drawn to their structural integrity - the military, the British monarchy, the papal selection process, Kansas
As the college hoops cosmos has exploded in size over the years, weights and measures have struggled to keep pace. As it stands, the key calculation during the regular season is a subjective survey of designated observers, most of whom get the same TV channels you do. The system works because most fans cling to the polls as a way to filter out the seemingly vast chaos outside, and randomness can be scary. (Side-note to the folks in charge: if you really want to reduce things to an easy-to-digest league-like tablet, then keep up with NBA expansion and make it the Top 30 already.)
Bringing Division I college basketball into line is a fascinating problem, a seemingly never-ending math equation: hundreds of entities, each one only coming into contact with about one-seventeenth of the rest. The tools of evaluation are limited and blunt - wins and losses and fractions of same based on location, as well as the records of those few teams one's had the opportunity to play, the records of those other teams, and so on.
So I've come to appreciate, admire and respect the work of those great modern minds who have undertaken the brave and noble task of instilling science and structure, searching for new types of objective data to mine, attempting to eliminate chaos from our game. They have names that sound like they belong to legendary scientists - names like Sagarin
. None will ever come close to solving Poincaré's still-unsolved conjecture
, but by impressing order onto the entire college basketball galaxy in real time, they've put private computers to far better use than SETI@home
It's fascinating stuff. But I don't personally find it interesting as a predictor of March brackets per se, but rather as a sort of celestial yardstick. Living in mid-majorville is not about awww-shucks underpuppy cuteness, or trawling for temporary sympathies by offering human interest. That stuff gets old real quick. When it comes down to it, being a mid-major is about living somewhere in the middle, as nearly all of us are.
Existence in the space between crowned champion and total oblivion is all about finding, then knowing, and finally accepting one's location in the universe at any given time. Sometimes that place can be on the 223rd rock from the sun, swinging between the orbits of High Point
, but it's important to know where you stand. That knowledge is a lot better than the feeling of hurtling listlessly and perilously through an endless nothingness, at the mercy of a cruel and random universe.