• Rose Smith

The Butterfly Effect: More than Just Time Travel


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Butterfly Effect is probably one of the most interesting and revolutionary ideas in the public mind. Across plenty of media, especially anything with a time travel narrative, we understand that even the smallest of actions (like killing a butterfly) can accidentally cause unpredictable results. While we tend to focus on a particular aspect of the Butterfly Effect, its original interpretation completely upended our ideas about how the world around us works.

The Butterfly Effect is commonly accepted in media to be as such: seemingly small, inconsequential events can inadvertently cause extreme results. For instance, if you killed a butterfly, you may have set off a chain reaction that leads to drastic results. This idea comes up a lot in media, especially in time travel stories. In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” the main character does just that. When he travels to the time of the dinosaurs, he accidentally kills a butterfly, and when he returns to the present, the future is completely changed (fs). As opposed to the present he left, an evil dictator is in power, and the spoken language is not as he left it. Just because of the death of a butterfly, the main character’s world is changed forever. Other movies and works deal with similar questions such as what would happen if you had never been born or if you tried to change the past.

While the aforementioned Butterfly Effect is commonly cited and explored in media, it is not technically used as it was intended. The Butterfly Effect was first coined by meteorology professor Edward Lorenz (MIT Technology Review). Lorenz was trying to find a way to predict the weather through mathematical modeling and weather data. One day, he decided to round one of the numbers in his model, and he came to extremely different results. Just a small change caused the entire weather model to change. Hence, Lorenz stated that it’s possible that the flap of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado across the world. The way this idea differs from the way we commonly think about it is the relationship between cause and effect. We tend to think of the Butterfly Effect as the idea that a small event can cause a giant result; what Lorenz is trying to get at is that events can be caused by small events that we may have not even been able to detect. Fiction tries to focus on the symbolism of the butterfly causing the event, but Lorenz is trying to insist that small details that we can’t even detect can cause large events (and with that, we cannot truly predict the future due to the complex and chaotic systems of cause and effect).

Lorenz’s work on the Butterfly Effect laid the groundwork for the idea of chaos theory, which would be an integral part of modeling in many disciplines (American Scientiest). Before chaos theory, philosophers like Isaac Newton and Pierre-Simon Laplace put forth that everything, if given enough information, can be predicted. If we knew everything about the universe in the present, then we would know exactly what would happen next, but Lorenz’s work blew this notion out of the water. The Butterfly Effect has filtered its way through science and popular culture. Lorenz utilized this theory to make great steps in weather prediction through data collection, modeling, and the “recognition of chaos” (MIT Technology Review). This is called ensemble weather forecasting, and we still use Lorenz's model today to predict the weather. Systems of nature and their causes and effects are too complex to disentangle from each other, so we try our best to take chaos into account,

The Butterfly Effect teaches us about the nature of chaos, and it has captured our imaginations in the media. It also adds a bit of mystery to our world, since we can never really understand what the future holds. Lorenz revolutionized the way we think about the world, since we have come to realize that we cannot simply predict the future if we know the present and that there is this certain underlying level of chaos that we have to work with to make any approximate progress in understanding the world. While we fixate on butterflies because of their presumably tiny effects they have on the immediate present, there are plenty of 'butterflies' in this world, many we cannot even fully detect. Just as we have embraced the Butterfly Effect in fiction, we should embrace that the phenomena around us have such complex systems that we cannot simply fully predict the future. If anything, that can add a sense of mystery and wonder to your daily life.