The Butterfly Effect Explained

butterfly effect

Introduction: What is the Butterfly Effect?

The butterfly effect simply means that a small change at one place in a complex dynamic system can lead to larger, unexpected consequences. The chaos theory or butterfly effect comes across as one of the most profound surprises in the scientific world, which affect our lives in ways which are both 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. In popular culture, the butterfly effect is used to describe and explain the inexplicable – how one small event can have a magnanimous effect on a completely unrelated event.

The Invention of the Butterfly Effect

The famous theory was proposed by an MIT meteorology professor, Edward Lorenz 45 years ago during the 139th of the Association for Advancement of Science. It is claimed that he came across the phenomenon while conducting some weather-related research.

Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

His findings and observations were characterized in a paper titled ‘Deterministic Non-Periodic Flow’ which is still considered as 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.

Lorenz discovered that this deterministic interpretation of the universe could not account for the imprecision in human measurement of physical phenomena. He observed that nature’s interdependent cause-and-effect relationships are too complex to resolve. To approximate the likely outcomes for such complex systems as weather patterns, he began using sets of slightly different starting conditions to conduct parallel meteorological simulations.

Who knew, this simple theory would turn out to be the basis for explaining how most things in life work. It has been embraced by popular culture ever since. The sole reason for it is that the theory does not just have scientific relevance, but also psychological, social, psychiatry and philosophical explanation.

A real-Time instance where this theory has proved to be useful

Many examples exist of instances where a tiny detail led to a dramatic change. In each case, the world we live in could be different if the situation had been reversed. One instance of how the butterfly effect has shaped our lives is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Famous Fuji
Photographer: David Edelstein | Source: Unsplash

A little research into the war will tell you that the U.S intended to bomb the Japanese city of Kuroko. However, on a 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. This proves how everything affects everything. How a small error in the former can produce an enormous error in the latter.

You cannot remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.” Quoted by Fichte, The Vocation of Man (1800).

Philosophical, Psychological, and Social Implications of the butterfly effect

Upon reading or listening to about the butterfly effect, you must have encountered the question, ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ The question does not directly imply that a single act of flapping wings can cause a natural calamity.

Photographer: Daniil Kuželev | Source: Unsplash

It is a metaphorical statement to address the fact that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system; to establish that just a small event, like this, at the right time and place could, in theory, trigger a set of events that will ultimately culminate in the formation of a hurricane on the other side of the world. To put it another way, small variances in initial conditions can have profound and widely divergent effects on a system.

In modern science, the theory can have applications in physics, mathematics, engineering, as well as biology, psychology, and cognitive science. The dynamic approach to cognition emphasizes the complex process of human development including mental, behavioural, neural and social systems interacting with each other over the life course. Emotion-related experiences as the result of interaction between a person and his environment have been useful for explaining the butterfly effect in psychiatric practice.

The theory also suggests that one tiny act of kindness can cause a ripple which echoes throughout the world. Imagine how the effect of one act of kindness that allows for another and yet another, linking all of us in ways we never imagined. Even a small act of consideration may reverberate beyond anything we might imagine. What is this supposed to mean? Perhaps that it is the small act of empathy that spin the web that holds everything together—what we do every day is more important than what we do once in a while. The events that can change the world are not big bombs, politicians, or vast population movements. They are rather small acts of kindness that reciprocate and bring reform.

The modern relevance of the theory

Even today, this theory is effectively used in weather forecasting, business and economic predictions. The theory has also been useful in explaining the infamous Chernobyl accident.

Most things in nature tend to be the result of many interconnected, and interdependent, cause-and-effect relationships. 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.