“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
In one of Stephen King’s greatest works, 11/22/63, a young man named Jake discovers a portal in a diner’s pantry which leads back to 1958. After a few visits and some experiments, Jake deduces that altering history is possible. However long he stays in the past, only two minutes go by in the present. He decides to live in the past until 1963 so he can prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, believing that this change will greatly benefit humanity. After years of stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, Jake manages to prevent him from shooting Kennedy. Upon returning to the present, he expects to find the world improved as a result. Instead, the opposite has happened. Earthquakes occur everywhere, his old home is in ruins, and nuclear war has destroyed much of the world. (As King wrote in an article for Marvel Spotlight, “Not good to fool with Father Time.”) Distraught, Jake returns to 1958 once again and resets history. In addition to being a masterful work of speculative fiction, 11/22/63 is a classic example of how everything in the world is connected together.
The butterfly effect is the idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on a complex system. The concept is imagined with a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon.
Of course, a single act like the butterfly flapping its wings cannot cause a typhoon. Small events can, however, serve as catalysts that act on starting conditions. As John Gribbin writes in his cult-classic work Deep Simplicity, “some systems … are very sensitive to their starting conditions, so that a tiny difference in the initial ‘push’ you give them causes a big difference in where they end up, and there is feedback, so that what a system does affects its own behavior.”
Benjamin Franklin offered a poetic perspective in his variation of a proverb that’s been around since the 14th century in English and the 13th century in German, long before the identification of the butterfly effect:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The lack of one horseshoe nail could be inconsequential, or it could indirectly cause the loss of a war. There is no way to predict which outcome will occur. (check out the book – If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)
“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
Although the concept of the butterfly effect has long been debated, the identification of it as a distinct effect is credited to Edward Lorenz (1917–2008). Lorenz was a meteorologist and mathematician who successfully combined the two disciplines to create chaos theory. During the 1950s, Lorenz searched for a means of predicting the weather, as he found linear models to be ineffective. In an experiment to model a weather prediction, he entered the initial condition as 0.506, instead of 0.506127. The result was surprising: a somewhat different prediction. From this, he deduced that the weather must turn on a dime. A tiny change in the initial conditions had enormous long-term implications.
In simpler language, he theorized that weather prediction models are inaccurate because knowing the precise starting conditions is impossible, and a tiny change can throw off the results. In order to make the concept understandable to non-scientific audiences, Lorenz began to use the butterfly analogy.
A small error in the initial data magnifies over time. In speeches and interviews, he explained that a butterfly has the potential to create tiny changes which, while not creating a typhoon, could alter its trajectory. A flapping wing represents the minuscule changes in atmospheric pressure, and these changes compound as a model progresses. Given that small, nearly imperceptible changes can have massive implications in complex systems, Lorenz concluded that attempts to predict the weather were impossible. Lorenz always stressed that there is no way of knowing what exactly tipped a system. The butterfly is a symbolic representation of an unknowable quantity.
The butterfly effect is somewhat humbling—a model that exposes the flaws in other models. It shows science to be less accurate than we assume, as we have no means of making accurate predictions due to the exponential growth of errors.
Ray Bradbury’s classic science fiction story A Sound of Thunder predates the identification of chaos theory and the butterfly effect. Set in 2055, it tells of a man named Eckels who travels back 65 million years to shoot a dinosaur. Warned not to deviate from the tour guide’s plan, Eckels (along with his guide and the guide’s assistant) heads off to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex who was going to die soon anyway when a falling tree lands on it. Eckels panics at the sight of the creature and steps off the path, leaving his guide to kill the T Rex. The guide is enraged and orders Eckels to remove the bullets before the trio returns to 2055. Upon arrival, they are confused to find that the world has changed. Language is altered and an evil dictator is now in charge. A confused Eckels notices a crushed butterfly stuck to his boot and realizes that in stepping off the path, he killed the insect and changed the future.
Bradbury writes: Eckels felt himself fall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling, “No, it cannot be. Not a little thing like that. No!” Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead. “Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.
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. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it? Bradbury envisioned the passage of time as fragile and liable to be disturbed by minor changes.
Many historic examples exist of instances where a tiny detail led to a dramatic change. In each case, the world we live in could be different if the situation had been reversed.
- The bombing of Nagasaki. The US initially intended to bomb the Japanese city of Kuroko, with the munitions factory as a target. On the day the US planned to attack, cloudy weather conditions prevented the factory from being seen by military personnel as they flew overhead. The airplane passed over the city three times before the pilots gave up. Locals huddled in shelters heard the hum of the airplane preparing to drop the nuclear bomb and prepared for their destruction. Except Kuroko was never bombed. Military personnel decided on Nagasaki as the target due to improved visibility. The implications of that split-second decision were monumental. We cannot even begin to comprehend how different history might have been if that day had not been cloudy. Kuroko is sometimes referred to as the luckiest city in Japan, and those who lived there during the war are still shaken by the near miss.
- The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna rejecting Adolf Hitler’s application, twice. In the early 1900s, a young Hitler applied for art school and was rejected, possibly by a Jewish professor. By his own estimation and that of scholars, this rejection went on to shape his metamorphosis from a bohemian aspiring artist into the human manifestation of evil. We can only speculate as to how history would have been different. But it is safe to assume that a great deal of tragedy could have been avoided if Hitler had applied himself to watercolors, not to genocide.
- The Chernobyl disaster. In 1986, a test at the Chernobyl nuclear plant went awry and released 400 times the radiation produced by the bombing of Hiroshima. One hundred fifteen thousand people were evacuated from the area, with many deaths and birth defects resulting from the radiation. Even today, some areas remain too dangerous to visit. However, it could have been much worse. After the initial explosion, three plant workers volunteered to turn off the underwater valves to prevent a second explosion. It has long been believed that the trio died as a result, although there is now some evidence this may not have been the case. Regardless, diving into a dark basement flooded with radioactive water was a heroic act. Had they failed to turn off the valve, half of Europe would have been destroyed and rendered uninhabitable for half a million years. Russia, Ukraine, and Kiev also would have become unfit for human habitation. Whether they lived or not, the three men—Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov—stilled the wings of a deadly butterfly. Indeed, the entire Chernobyl disaster was the result of poor design and the ineptitude of staff. The long-term result (in addition to the impact on residents of the area) was a widespread anxiety towards nuclear plants and bias against nuclear power, leading to a preference for fossil fuels. Some people have speculated that Chernobyl is responsible for the acceleration of global warming, as countries became unduly slow to adopt nuclear power.
- The Cuban Missile Crisis. We all may owe our lives to a single Russian Navy officer named Vasili Arkhipov, who has been called “the man who saved the world.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Arkhipov was stationed on a nuclear-armed submarine near Cuba. American aircraft and ships began using depth charges to signal the submarine that it should surface so it could be identified. With the submarine submerged too deep to monitor radio signals, the crew had no idea what was going on in the world above. The captain, Savitsky, decided the signal meant that war had broken out and he prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo. Everyone agreed with him—except Arkhipov. Had the torpedo launched, nuclear clouds would have hit Moscow, London, East Anglia and Germany, before wiping out half of the British population. The result could have been a worldwide nuclear holocaust, as countries retaliated and the conflict spread. Yet within an overheated underwater room, Arkhipov exercised his veto power and prevented a launch. Without the courage of one man, our world could be unimaginably different.
From these handful of examples, it is clear how fragile the world is, and how dire the effects of tiny events can be on starting conditions. We like to think we can predict the future and exercise a degree of control over powerful systems such as the weather and the economy. Yet the butterfly effect shows that we cannot. The systems around us are chaotic and entropic, prone to sudden change. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.
Enough of the science already, lets get writing:
- You are an assassin. You don’t need explosives, guns or poison. You are a master of the butterfly effect. But you suddenly realize that the next assassination could alter the course of your present life.
- You adopt four teenage girls, and as time passes, you begin to realize each of them represents a horseman of the apocalypse
- Adolf Hitler has fought off dozens of assassination attempts by well-meaning time travellers, but this one is different. This traveller doesn’t want to kill Hitler, he wants to teach him to paint. He pulls off his hood to reveal he is Salman Khan.
- Alternate Hitler prompt: story of how Hitler’s bodyguard managed to fend off the many time travelling assassins from the future
- Describe, with the butterfly effect, how your co-worker’s fuckup led to world war III and the destruction of humanity
- “UFOs” are people from the future observing the past while trying to influence it as little as possible
- Every person in the world is born with a twin that is separated from them at birth for the entirety of their life by the government. One day you meet your twin and find out why all the twins are kept separated.
- You’ve spent years online convincing people you’re a scientific expert. Now you have been summoned to a UN conference about the impending apocalypse. You’re 15 years old.
- A piece of your time machine is missing, You replace it with an alternate part. This completely innocent decision of yours could inadvertently result in the death of many people
Souces/ Acknowledgements: FS blog, reditt