Neil Johnson has a sunny smile for each traffic jam, writes Amanda Castleman. He doesn't see a queue of grumpy motorists, rather science in action. Of course, he may just have missed the snarl though, because the Oxford University physics lecturer is learning to foresee such random events.

His methods veer far from those of medium Gypsy Rose or science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. There's no hint of the paranormal in his cluttered office. Instead, Neil studies the science of complexity, a controversial new discipline.

His lecture, Predicting the Unpredictable, caps the Oxford Trust's Festival of Science and Innovation 2000. Neil's spiel is well-polished, honed by presenting the 1999 Royal Institution Christmas lectures seen by millions on television. He explains: "I am fascinated by the whole of Nature, from the way a bud works to how we organise ourselves as a society, to the formation of a galaxy. It's all balanced between order and chaos.

"Nature looks for a middle ground that is better suited to adapt to changes in the surroundings. For example, the human heart - which we think of as so steady - actually has an irregularity that keeps us healthy. It's a funny concept, because we think of illness as disorder and health as order.

"The body has many clocks competing with each other, so there's no reliance on one. It strikes a compromise - if the heartbeat is too regular, a weakness has forced it to rely on one clock. Basically, we do best when we are way out of balance." The mathematics that describe your ticker can also apply to a traffic jam. Neil adds: "There are bits interacting and giving feedback - many motorists trying selfishly to do the best thing, to take control, but no one quite has it." And that same maths can even describe the kind of music we like.

The science of complexity also tackles the old dilemma: two's company, three's a crowd. "It studies how complex behaviour around us - life - builds up," says Neil.

The ideas apply to economics, immune systems - even family planning. Two children aren't double trouble, they're quadruple. Three children are nine times the hassle. Neil chuckles: "I can speak from experience here. I've got two. "The change from no children to one is the most traumatic, but it's manageable. But two on the scene - somehow that's out of control."

Perhaps it's a bit like adding a music career to a flourishing academic one, which Neil attempts to do. The 38-year-old physicist learned saxophone from the age of eight, and can't shake his first love. After training at Cambridge and Harvard and knocking around the US for almost a decade, he left for South America to play in a salsa band. He also taught at the University of the Andes in Bogota. He says: "I'm convinced I got the job in Oxford because they thought I was at Columbia - the highly distinguished American university - rather than just in Columbia." That's hardly the reason, though, considering his powerhouse CV. But Neil is a modest fellow, so I let him return to more important matters, such as understanding what makes the universe tick. This happens on a quantum level - that is to say the smallest level that can exist. Physicists are studying how particles link, even though they are far apart.

"Einstein hated it and called it 'spooky action at a distance'. He wouldn't accept it, but this time he was wrong," Neil explains.

These minute particles may contain more information than the visible world. Understanding how they interact could lead to unbreakable secret codes, teleportation and quantum computers than could run many calculations at the same time. It could also lead to a single over-riding principle that explains everything. Deep waters, certainly. Ironically, this lands physicists closer to information scientists (like librarians) than philosophers. "We're extracting information from Nature," Neil says, "but it's still all about results, which philosophy isn't.

"Science tries to explain the observed world, everything else is poetry."

And the big answer is out there? Neil sounds hopeful when he says: "In the 20th century we took things apart to understand the building blocks. Now in the 21st, we're putting them back together. We may just learn to say things about the future."

Story date: Saturday 22 January

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.