The Butterfly Effect

David Dang, Staff Writer

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The smallest event could have the biggest consequences. Be wary everyone. The smallest footstep, the slightest turn, or even the slightest breath can impact the future and change the events of history forever.

The Butterfly Effect was theorized over 50 years ago by famous meteorologist Edward Lorenz at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lorenz used a complex weather simulation program based on 12 different environmental factors, including wind-speed and temperature. While running this simulation, Lorenz rounded one variable from 0.506127 to 0.506. When Lorenz reviewed his results two months later, the data from the computer system had drastically changed.  

This result inspired Lorenz to formulate the “Butterfly Effect” to explain how small changes can have large consequences. The name came to Lorenz after envisioning how a the flap of a butterfly’s wings is able to cause a tornado in Texas. An isolated and irrelevant event can cause dramatic changes.

In 1963 Lorenz published his research into a paper titled “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow”. Throughout the decade, Lorenz’s paper was unpopular and was cited only three times by other people outside the field of meteorology.

However, Lorenz’s research became an important stepping stone in Chaos Theory and helped to expand other subjects like meteorology, geology, and biology.  

More importantly, “The Butterfly Effect” challenged Newtonian ideas of a predictable mechanical system.

Newton, the father of modern physics, believed everything- when given the necessary variables – could predict events in the future. The world in Newton’s view was can be compared to clockwork; everything runs in perfect order; it’s stable and predictable system. Unfortunately, Lorenz’s Butterfly effect  shattered this dream.

Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell and author of Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos. “Determinism was equated with predictability before Lorenz. After Lorenz, we came to see that determinism might give you short-term predictability, but in the long run, things could be unpredictable. That’s what we associate with the word ‘chaos.’ ”(MIT).

Hugh Mackay, an Australian scientist, once said, “No one welcomes chaos, but why crave stability and predictability?”