Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Can the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Cause a Tornado in Texas?
For the past few weeks I’ve been reading up on “chaos theory.” It drives my obsessive-compulsive nature crazy! The theory was articulated by MIT professor, Edward Lorenz. In 1961, Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127. The result was a completely different weather scenario. When delivering his findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, his talk was titled, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
Thus the phrase, “Butterfly Effect” describes the notion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear system may produce large variations in the long-term outcome of the system. For example, a ball placed at the top of a hill might roll anywhere depending on slight differences in initial position. This is why forecasting the weather beyond about a week is impossible.
This idea has been explored in a lot of movies, most notably, “The Butterfly Effect” starring Ashton Kutcher. This is a VERY dark movie. Remember “Back to the Future 2?” Just because Biff won a bet in 1955, an alternate 1985 was projected as a hellish world. One tiny event dramatically changed the future. Actually, the very act of being present in the past must change the future, resulting in an alternate future in which you never went back to the past to begin with. This is explored in the remake of “The Time Machine.” Remember how he kept going back in time to save his fiancé and had to watch her die several times because the very existence of the time machine as a mechanism to save her life depended on her dying to begin with! The British movie “Sliding Doors” runs two parallel stories of the same woman, Helen. In one world, she manages to catch a London Underground train home on time, and in the other she just misses it. This small event influenced her life dramatically.
This is the ultimate “what if?” mind game. I was sitting in traffic on LBJ freeway a few weeks ago, and I got thinking, “How many lives are dramatically altered because one person wasn’t paying attention and braked too late?” How different would the world look in 10 years if that wreck never happened? What about all the “little” events in your life from day to day? What if you left the house 5 minutes later? What if you went to McDonalds rather than Wendy’s? On and on you could go until you drive yourself crazy! What if? What if?? What if??? Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas – and in your life?