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The Independent Online

CHAOS was the Greek word for the infinite void, and also for the mass of disorganised matter from which everything began. In Judaeo-Christian mythology it is the raw material of the Almighty's six-day task, a fearful storm-racked waste extending to the nethermost abyss. Poets have constantly invoked it as the worst sort of horror, which, if we're not careful, might re-invade, when things will fall apart and the centre will loosen its tenuous hold. If he stops loving Desdemona, says Othello, it will be a cosmic disaster: " will come again."

Well, chaos came again this winter, In the gentler form of a new softfallen mask of snow. " in the Big Freeze" and "Trail of ," say the headlines. But there's nothing cosmic about it now, the snow itself being a natural phenomenon and part of the order of things. The chaos the newspapers talk about is human, secularised if you like. (It's even some time since I heard an AA spokesman telling us there's a white Hell out there.) is the car in the ditch, the train that never comes, and the state of that drawer you meant to clear. When Shakespeare, or, say, Alexander Pope (who believed in a divine order, and used the word rather a lot) offered chaos as a metaphor, we can be sure their readers or listeners still thought in terms of a deranged universe; today, it's an untidy bedroom.

Only the scientists' use of the word retains its old sense of awe. theory is an attempt to understand why some numerical progressions are mysteriously unpredictable, or why, for example, birds and animals may suddenly behave in an inexplicable way: how, in short, the world is not as ordered as science once thought it might be, which can be alarming. Strangely enough, one of its earliest preoccupations was with the unpredictability of the weather.

Nicholas Bagnall