ABSTRACT: Temporal pattern learning, control and prediction, and chaotic data analysis share a common problem: deducing optimal equations of motion from observations of time-dependent behavior. Each desires to obtain models of the physical world from limited information. We describe a method to reconstruct the deterministic portion of the equations of motion directly from a data series. These equations of motion represent a vast reduction of a chaotic data set's observed complexity to a compact, algorithmic specification. This approach employs an informational measure of model optimality to guide searching through the space of dynamical systems. As corollary results, we indicate how to estimate the minimum embedding dimension, extrinsic noise level, metric entropy, and Lyapunov spectrum. Numerical and experimental applications demonstrate the method's feasibility and limitations. Extensions to estimating parametrized families of dynamical systems from bifurcation data and to spatial pattern evolution are presented. Applications to predicting chaotic data and the design of forecasting, learning, and control systems, are discussed.