It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon halfway around the world.
One of the greatest surprises in the scientific world is the chaos theory or butterfly effect which are events in our lives that are both non-linear and unpredictable. While science traditionally deals with outcomes that can be predicted and calculated to a certain extent like chemical reactions or the force of gravity, there are often many instances that are nearly impossible to predict like natural disasters, stock prices or the weather.
The first step to overcoming this unpredictability is to understand the chaotic nature of the world we live in. Identifying the elements that cause changes in stock price or the weather can help us steer our thinking in a certain direction. Finally, we need to remember that our eco, social and economic systems are all interconnected and taking negative actions on any of these systems can result in detrimental consequences.
The Butterfly Effect
The butterfly effect describes the phenomenon that a small event can have very large consequences.
This chain reaction is perfectly described in the movie ‘Pay it forward’ where a small boy, Trevor, creates a plan of kindness for a school project. A recipient of a kind favor carries forward this favor to three other people. As the movie goes on we see this circle of people who do favors become bigger and bigger and ultimately affects the lives of many people in the community. One random act kindness started by a small boy resulted in a very large impact, changing everyone’s lives for the better.
While the movie represents a glass half full situation, the butterfly effect can be negative as well. For example, as much as meteorologists try to predict natural disasters, there have been tsunamis and typhoons that are inexplicable.
It is important to remember that the butterfly effect is not a small event that can have a large impact which can eventually be driven to the desired end but it is in fact a small event in a complex universe that can either have a very large impact or no impact at all. It is virtually impossible for us to identify or predict which one will occur.
The invention of the butterfly effect
In popular culture, the butterfly effect is used to describe the explain the inexplicable. How one small event can have a magnanimous effect on a completely unrelated event. This theory was first discovered by an MIT meteorology professor, Edward Lorenz who came across the phenomenon while conducting some weather-related research.
In 1963, Lorenz was conducting research on weather patterns and entered numbers into a program that was based on 12 variables such as wind, speed, and temperature. These values would be depicted on a graph that would rise and fall depending on the weather pattern. Lorenz ran a stimulation similar to the one he ran previously and the results he saw surprised him.
The variables were drastically different from what he saw previously when he ran the same stimuli. This would forever change the way his program produced weather patterns. He said “the numbers I had typed into the computer were not exactly the original ones. They were rounded versions I had first given to the printer. The initial errors caused by rounding out the values were the cause: they constantly grew until they controlled the solution. Nowadays, we would call this chaos.”
This unexpected change in the value of the variables based on the same stimuli led Lorenz to the powerful insight that the smallest of changes could have large unpredictable effects. He later termed this the butterfly effect saying that a butterfly could flap its wings in one part of the world and it could cause a typhoon in a completely different place. This led him to the conclusion that even with knowledge of primary conditions, the future was virtually impossible to predict.
Lorenz presented his findings in a paper titled ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow’ which is considered one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century physics. He said that there are small variables that can have profound impacts on the same body or system in the future. The strength of the impact is however unpredictable. Weather is a variable that is often hard to predict.
How the butterfly effect has impacted reality?
There are many references in real life (also represented in popular culture) where a small event has resulted in a large consequence- the butterfly effect. Here are a few ways the butterfly effect has shaped modern history.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remembered as one of the most significant events in the war that changed the course of history and won Korea their independence. A little research into the war will tell you that the U.S intended to bomb the Japanese city of Kuroko.
However, on the fateful day, bad weather conditions prevented the U.S from doing this. The fighter planes flew over the city three times and eventually gave up due to the lack of visibility. The military personnel then made the split second decision to bomb Nagasaki instead. This bombing, as has been documented in history, had a magnanimous effect on the war and changed the course of history. If the weather conditions in Kuroko had been better, it might have resulted in a completely different outcome.
The Chernobyl accident
In Soviet Ukraine, 1986, a catastrophic accident occurred at a Chernobyl nuclear plant. The disaster was a result of design flaws in the reactor and the arrangement of the nuclear core that was not in accordance with the manual. This nuclear accident is said to have released more radiation that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Numerous people were evacuated and it also resulted in deaths and birth defects.
However, the accident could have been much worse, after the initial release of radiation three workers volunteered to go turn off the underground valve which is said to have eventually killed them. This was a brave and heroic act because had they not turned off the valve when they did, more than half of Europe would have been destroyed and inhabitable (the butterfly effect). The Chernobyl accident has had numerous long-term effects and many believe it is the cause of global warming. Countries today are slow to adopt nuclear power as an energy source.
While the human race thrives on control and predictability, the butterfly effect shows us that we, in fact, cannot predict the future. The complex universe around us is chaotic and vulnerable to even the smallest of changes. As humans, we can only identify catalysts that react to these conditions. However, if we try to control or predict outcomes, more often than not, it will result in failure.
Finally, always remember what the butterfly effect actually teaches us- “Everything that you do matters”.
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