The Butterfly Effect

“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.”

— from Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

The butterfly effect is a theory which was developed by meteorologist Ed Lorenz, during his time in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It describes how small changes in nature can deter the original course of events to an almost exponential degree. Lorenz studied long range weather forecasting. The statisticians he worked with were of the opinion that it was possible to predict the weather of a particular day by studying the historical record of those days when the conditions were exactly the same. Lorenz disagreed with this theory, saying that the complexity of the atmosphere made it impossible to have two days with precisely the same conditions. As he later saw, while inputting the data into an atmosphere simulation, a mistake in the rounding off of some values brought forward a drastic change in the results. This, he described as the butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect has been much represented in the pop culture of the times. There have been books employing its effect, movies made based on the theory, and a whole host of movies that refer to the butterfly effect at some point. A particularly poignant reference to this effect is made in the 1925’s short story by Ray Bradbury, describing the death of a butterfly in the past:

“It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time”

Historically, there have been small events, insignificant in themselves, that went on to catalyze wars and made heroes out of ordinary men and women. If we look back, the butterfly effect has been used in literature as old as Homer, with his Helen of Troy as the most beautiful. For every major kink in Father Time’s beard, there has been a butterfly in a faraway land, innocently flapping its wings and flittering around.

The movie Dunkirk (2017) by Christopher Nolan, describes the desperation and helplessness of the soldiers of the Allies trapped in a beach at Dunkirk. It shows how a seemingly innocuous action on the part of the many boat-owners of Britain changed the lives of some hundreds of thousands of Belgian, British and French soldiers.

In The Imitation Game, the life of renowned mathematician Alan Turing is shown, in all its glory. How he built a machine that made the much feared German Enigma redundant, and how he and his band of mathematical minds played God behind the scenes of the second World War. The method employed by Turing in selecting his group was no less than blasphemous at that time, as it looked beyond gender biases and selected on the basis of pure merit.

Answering an advertisement in the paper that called for those able to solve a crossword puzzle in six minutes or less, a woman makes her way to the hallowed halls of the British Secret Service where women were employed as mere clerks and receptionists. Facing some barriers upon entry, she encounters a mildly irritated Professor Turing, who simply reprimands her on her lateness, and bids her to sit at a desk and solve a puzzle. She gets accepted into the program, and spends the next two years working on the encrypted messages from Germany, which are intercepted at regular intervals, and encrypted using a machine called Enigma, which inputs in important messages and emits gibberish in turn.

The movie shows the seemingly insignificant way by which Turing was introduced to cryptography, and the heartbreaking story behind his lack of loneliness. The butterfly effect is shown in the random acts of kindness which spurred a boy to grow up to become one of the greatest minds in Britain, and the reason the second world war was shortened by two years.

The butterfly effect gives name to one of the most fundamental phenomena in nature, that relates the triggers of major events with the events themselves.

“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.”

— Fichte, The Vocation of Man (1800)