The Butterfly Effect

Becoming A Butterfly

The “Butterfly Effect” is fairly well-known. The popular version is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a tornado in Tennessee. The butterfly’s wing flap results in a tiny disturbance in the air below and above the wing, which if amplified over time might be connected with the start of a hurricane.

The concept has become part of pop culture. It has been featured in several movies and featured in popular science programs. The Butterfly Effect is not a scientific law. It’s a poetic way of expressing unpredictability in complicated systems like weather prediction.

The concept is somewhat more complicated. It comes from chaos theory. Chaos theory is, roughly, the idea that despite apparent randomness in chaotic systems, there is an underlying interconnectedness and pattern. It really has to do with tiny variances in the initial mathematic parameters used in modeling weather and making predictions. A small variance may result in very different predictions.

The effect and chaos theory stem largely from the work of Ed Lorenz, a mathematician at MIT who theorized that tiny disturbances in the atmosphere and build up and have huge impact over time. In the 1960s, Lorenz was studying how to do better weather predictions. His relatively primitive computers showed him that small variables in an initial analysis could vastly change the results after a little time. The problem remains, in the sense that accurate weather predictions even now are apt to be wildly inaccurate beyond two weeks or so.

The Butterfly Effect is now actually called the “predictability horizon.” The original phrasing of the effect has several versions. Lorenz is said to have described the concept to a meeting as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas.

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