The butterfly effect is the idea that small, seemingly trivial events may ultimately result in something with much larger consequences – in other words, they have non-linear impacts on very complex systems. For instance, when a butterfly flaps its wings in India, that tiny change in air pressure could eventually cause a tornado in Iowa.
The term “butterfly effect” was coined in the 1960s by Edward Lorenz, a meteorology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was studying weather patterns. He devised a model demonstrating that if you compare two starting points indicating current weather that are near each other, they’ll soon drift apart – and later, one area could wind up with severe storms, while the other is calm.
Later, other scientists realized the importance of Lorenz’s discovery. His insights laid the foundation for a branch of mathematics known as chaos theory, the idea of trying to predict the behavior of systems that are inherently unpredictable.
You can see instances of the butterfly effect every day. Weather’s just one example. Climate change is another. Because, as it turns out, warming climates are impacting – appropriately enough – species of alpine butterflies in North America.
In 1952, an author named Ray Bradbury published a short story called A Sound of Thunder, ended a hunter named Echolls pays $10,000 to travel with time Safari. A time machine company that takes hunters back to the time of dinosaurs and allows them to hunt the T-Rex. The company guarantees nothing, neither your safety nor your return, and there are strict instructions and expectations for how the hunters should behave once they travel back in time. When they travel 60 million years back in time, they noticed the path that has been laid by the company. It floats six inches above the earth, and is the only path that the hunter should travel upon. They cannot touch anything during their stay in the past and they’re only to shoot when told to. Interrupting any of the natural processes in the past could have irreparable repercussions for the future. Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like the Grand Canyon across eternity. They’re very careful with leaving the past just as it was supposed to unfold. The T-Rex that they were supposed to kill was going to be crushed by a tree only seconds later it was going to die anyway.
Echols however is terrified and runs back to the time machine through the jungle and waits for the others. But once the rest of the crew returns, they noticed the mud on that goes boots. Against their better judgment they allow him to return with the crew back to prison day. When they exit the time machine the crew checks in with the man behind the desk to see if everything is okay and the man tells him it is. The man however is acting a bit different from before they left there’s a strange smell in the air it’s faint but it’s there. The sign on the wall is different the words were spelled differently. Echols sits down that checks every inch of his body for things that could have ruined, and on his boot caked in the mud he finds a butterfly, beautiful and dead. The death of a single butterfly has somehow resulted in the future being changed, he cries out in this belief, begging to return to the past and somehow undo what he’s done. He sits down, with his eyes closed and senses a crew member enter the room. The crew member briefly and takes the safety off his rifle. Echols opens his eyes, but suddenly all he hears is a sound of thunder.
It used to be thought that events that changed the world were things like big bombs, huge earthquakes or other large-scale events. But has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that changed the world are the tiny things. A butterfly flapped its wings in the Amazon and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe. Paraphrased a little bit is a quote from a novel named Good Omens what it’s talking about is the butterfly effect. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions more commonly known as the Butterfly Effect is the idea that a small change in any situation could have huge implications later on down the road. The idea was coined by Edward Lorenz in the 1950s. Lorenz was a meteorologist to a surgery for a means of predicting the weather. He was conducting experiments with various numbers to try and model weather prediction. He did a previous experiment with an initial condition of 0.506127. Six significant digits, a little bit overkill he thought so this time his initial condition was only 0.506. Three significant digits should be fine. So we left the room to get a cup of coffee and came back to something drastically different from what he had previously. At first things seemed normal and they seemed to follow the first experiment one-to-one, but after a while they started to diverge and looked like completely different models. A 0.03% difference in values had enormous long-term implications. It may seem insignificant it’s just a model right. Well, Lorenz had actually just opened the door to a new way of thinking and seeing the world around us.
Chaos Theory is the branch of mathematics that focuses on exactly this kind of thinking. But its name is kind of deceiving. Butterfly Effect doesn’t represent chaos but rather the effects of changing the slightest conditions and then observing the results. Think of this it is easier to predict the orbital period of a planet in another star system ten million years from now, than it is for us to predict our own weather here on earth just a month from today. Because in order for us to predict the weather long term, we would have to know the exact position and momentum of every molecule of air on the planet and how they interact with each other. For planetary orbits it’s just a lot easier there’s a lot less of variables, and a university physics student could probably calculate it. As for the weather butterfly flapping his wings creates a minuscule and almost unnoticeable change in atmospheric pressure, but these changes compound over and over and over as time progresses, until as widely known the butterfly’s wings cause tornado in Texas.
This inevitable growth of errors is called Deterministic Chaos. Chaos that can be determined measured. However the butterfly itself cannot call as a tornado, the butterfly represents an unknowable quantity. We can never reverse-engineer an event to find out what exactly tipped the system, there’s just too many factors that could have gone into it no choice you’ve ever made has been an isolated event. It’s like a domino effect that keeps compounding over time. The world in society is like a network and when a certain part of that network fails it affects everything else. Chaos Theory isn’t random even though it seems like it. To prove it let’s play Chaos game. Take a piece of paper and make three points like such, we’ll label them A, B and C. Now choose a random point in the middle of those three points, we’ll just put it right here. Now all you have to do is make a point halfway between your starting point and point A, from this point make a point halfway between here and point B, repeat the process for Point C and continue this pattern, rotating between points A, B and C. If you do this for long enough you’ll see something interesting start to happen as more and more generations if these points are drawn an image starts to emerge. From seemingly random points being drawn, from Chaos, from disorder, this complexity yet orderly figure shows its face. From drawing a few points and following certain rules Chaos can form order. It’s a fractal they’re infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across any scale. This shows that with enough time random actions can have serious long-term effects.
The Butterfly Effect isn’t exactly how you’d expect science to be. Physics math and many other scientific fields are based on predictability. You know predicting the orbit of planets in order to send satellites of probes there, or predicting the odds of an asteroid hitting the earth. The Butterfly Effect is the complete opposite, it’s a model that exposes the flaws and other models. It says that without a perfect knowledge of initial conditions any prediction is basically useless. But although the Butterfly Effect exposes flaws and other models, it also brings to light the impact that everything including each of us has. Jonas Salk is credited for having found the first vaccines for polio. Had he not discovered that at the time he did, the entire population of the planet today would be vastly different, some people wouldn’t have been born. Entire family lines may have been cut off due to the lack of a vaccine. Perhaps some of the largest companies today would not have been created if it weren’t for this specific event happening at this specific time.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Russian nuclear armed submarines was stationed off the coast of Cuba. American ships detected the submarine and began using depth charges to signal that the submarine should surface. The crew on board though took these depth charges to be bombs, the captain that the ship believed that war had broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union, and ordered a nuclear torpedo to be sent immediately. Everyone agreed except for one officer Vasili arkhipov. Without a unanimous vote no action could be taken and thus World War III was prevented. This one man’s decision is the reason that the United States and Russia today aren’t nuclear wastelands.
The Butterfly Effect affects everything. Do you really have control of your life like everything. No, but you and I have huge effects on the world as well. The Butterfly Effect is not to get leverage, it’s not saying that every small thing always has a big impact. If that were true then in a way you couldn’t manipulate it. Think of it like Jenga, you take away a certain block and things can be just fine but another block, that one special block if removed causes everything else to fall apart. The reality is you have no idea what thing or what block will change your future so everything has a say in it.
For example you watching this video will take up about 10 minutes of your day, whether it’s for a good reason or not. Could be watching a movie or listening to a song, getting a video idea from it , researching it, writing it, editing it and uploading it to where you see it on your YouTube feed, at a specific time prevent something bad from happening to you. Maybe you watching this video prevented you from going to the store 10 minutes early. Where if you had left 10 minutes ago a car that runs the red light would smash into you in an intersection killing you. It’s a scary thought but it’s a possibility. Someone recently messaged me and said that they had saw someone watching one of my videos in their classroom right next to them. They started to talk become friends and now they’re dating. If YouTube was on a platform if I hadn’t had that specific video idea that wouldn’t have happened, and maybe those two people would have never met. But it goes much further than that, everything has led you and I to this very moment literally everything. Because the universe exists , because the universe is expanding, and because the temperature of the universe was just right to the point that in stellar nurseries can form stars, without those stars we wouldn’t have supernovas, without supernovas we wouldn’t have iron, without iron we couldn’t exist.
Every day you breathe I hope and when you exhale you exhale Carbon Dioxide. This Carbon Dioxide through the help of plants and photosynthesis creates more oxygen. Oxygen that people hundreds of years from now might breathe. Everything you do, no matter how small it is will change the future in one way or another. People who lived hundreds of years ago have had an effect on the world as it is today. The things you do today will ripple throughout time. The small things you create today can be the big things that the next generation builds upon, in a way you can live forever. So the next time something big happens in your life, just think it didn’t happen by accident.
Just as the Butterfly Effect suggests everything you do today will change your future drastically. Skills you learned today could come in handy in ways you could never expect 10 years from now. Just like the fractals we talked about one small random action can have serious implications down the road.