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The Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory and the Future

Written by Shreya Panda, a grade 11 student.

We’ve always been told that our actions have consequences, but to what extent?

By I Kid You Not , in Climate Change Did You Know Facts to Know Science , at June 11, 2020 Tags: , , , , , , ,

Written by Shreya Panda, a grade 11 student

We’ve always been told that our actions have consequences, but to what extent? Have you ever wondered if this holds true for nature as well? Could we predict these consequences then? Does this mean that we could perhaps predict the future?

The Butterfly Effect answers these questions and more.

What is the butterfly effect?

The scientific description for the butterfly effect is the “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”.

The butterfly effect is the idea that tiny causes, like the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, can have huge effects, like setting off a tornado in Texas.

This idea was first put forward by Edward Lorenz. He was a meteorologist and a mathematician who combined the two disciplines to create the Chaos Theory.

What did he do?

Lorenz had conducted an experiment to model weather predictions. In this, he rounded off one of the initial condition values from 0.506127 to 0.506. Surprisingly, the result was a different prediction from the actual event.

From this, he deduced that the weather depends on even the tiniest calculations. A minute change in the initial conditions had an enormous long-term impact.

To make this concept understandable to non-scientific audiences, Lorenz used the butterfly analogy is a simple metaphor. The butterfly is a symbolic representation of an unknowable quantity.

The chaos theory

Chaos Theory, by definition, deals with “complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions”.

The Chaos Theory was groundbreaking when it was discovered because it threw off classical physics! For example, Newton’s Laws of Motion were all imagined in a “clockwork universe”, not one filled with apparent chaos. 

Even a tiny change in something with as many moving parts as the universe would mean that any assumption we make would be astronomically wrong. This means that we went from grasping a good chunk of our universe to knowing absolutely nothing about it.

However, the universe is not random, it is governed by rules: rules recognized by mathematicians for centuries. We have predicted the weather and human behaviour through consistent patterns observed over large periods of time. Does this mean we can predict the future too? Could this mean that time travel might actually be possible?

How well can we predict the future?

To answer the question of how well we can predict the future; the truth is that the future is still incoherent. The further you try to predict the harder it becomes and past a certain point, the predictions are no better than guesses.

The same is true when looking at the past of chaotic systems and trying to identify initial causes. Chaos puts fundamental limits on what we can know about the future of systems and what we can say about their pasts.

The butterfly effect and human behavior

At the beginning of the article, I talked about how our actions have consequences. It has been proven time and again that our simple words can terribly affect someone else’s mental health. In fact, human behavior is a perfect example of the Butterfly Effect.

A simple joke at someone else’s cost could damage the other person brutally. So, next time, think before you speak because your words are arrows that can’t be taken back. Similarly, a simple act of kindness could be a ray of light on someone’s dark day.

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