Does the world seem insanely chaotic and disordered? Chaos Theory may be a comforting explanation. This theory is based on the “fractal” nature of many things in our daily lives, such as weather, air turbulence, and even our own emotions. When something is “fractal,” it is infinitely complex and nonlinear. These conditions and events are interconnected within a giant web in which any small event affects all of the others. This nonlinear interconnectedness makes it impossible to predict the long-term effects of any of the many things in our surrounding world that have fractal qualities.
The concept of the “butterfly effect” was introduced as a metaphor for this theory. The romantic assertion is that the minute act of a butterfly flapping its wings at exactly the right moment in New Mexico can eventually cause a hurricane in China. While this example seems pretty extreme, there are others which show this effect in a less dramatic but equally effective way. Two molecules that are close together in the ocean will eventually end up in very different places due to the nonlinear nature of the liquid. Because of the unpredictable nature of air turbulence, two helium balloons which disappear into the sky at the same time and the same place will ultimately journey to areas that are very far apart.
This philosophy has its roots in the work of an MIT mathematician and meteorologist named Edward Lorenz who sought a way to make accurate long-term weather predictions. He invented a mathematical model composed of 12 different equations for measuring factors such as air pressure, temperature, and velocity. He entered this data into a computer to generate weather predictions that spanned months. But he encountered a problem with this system when he realized that simply rounding the temperature up by just a thousandth of a degree resulted in two drastically different weather reports. Immediately he concluded that long-term weather prediction was impossible when such a tiny event could alter the outcome. And thus the principle of the butterfly effect was born.
It’s compelling to think about the possibility that there could be such grand effects resulting from the tiny event of a butterfly flapping its wings. But is it really true? Though there is some controversy on this point, most scientists say not. Although a butterfly’s wings do produce slight fluctuations in air pressure, the pressure in the air around it is about 100,000 times larger. Thus, these very slight fluctuations are insufficient to have any real effect on the factors that contribute to weather phenomena.
While everyone agrees that the act of a butterfly is too insignificant to cause a hurricane, there is still some disagreement about whether or not Chaos Theory is real. Some scientists believe that this is just an easy excuse to avoid finding explanations for complex events. They think that we simply need to update and improve our weather models in order to make more accurate long-term forecasts. Already since 1961 and Lorenz’s experiment, weather models are able to measure a much greater variety of factors with greater accuracy.
However, some believe that although a butterfly’s wing has no effect, there are other very tiny, unpredictable events that can impact the weather. A temperature difference of just a thousandth of a degree changes in the process of air heating and rising, or the location of a cloud all could have an effect that can trigger not just one storm but potentially a chain of weather events in different parts of the country.
The debate around Chaos Theory and the butterfly effect reflects our persistent striving to gain control over an unpredictable world. Against the odds, we are determined to either conquer the unpredictability or explain it away as insignificant.
- “What is Chaos Theory?” Fractal Foundation. http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/.
- Bradley, Larry. “The Butterfly Effect,” 2010. Chaos and Fractals http://www.stsci.edu/~lbradley/seminar/butterfly.html.
- Wolchover, Natalie. “Can a Butterfly in Brazil Really Cause a Tornado in Texas?”, 13 December 2011. Live Science