Some of you may have heard of the butterfly effect before, either in passing or by watching some science fiction films like The Butterfly Effect starring Ashton Kutcher.
The popular idea behind this is that every little action will result in big consequences. Actually, this isn’t quite accurate.
The concept first came about by American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz as he explains how weather prediction models are affected by very, very small values (0.000127 from his unintentional experiment) which resulted in a completely different weather scenario altogether. He explains how this seemingly-inconsequential difference played its role in chaos theory which makes weather prediction models inaccurate, and later remarked, “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a sea gull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever. The controversy has not yet been settled, but the most recent evidence seems to favour the sea gulls.” After he failed to produce a title for his talk at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972, someone else gave his talk the title Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
Since then, various media have referenced this concept, either accurately or less accurately—mostly the latter. 1993’s Jurassic Park sees Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, explaining chaos theory using the butterfly effect example. His explanation is fairly accurate in that he describes it as being about unpredictability.
Other than the aforementioned movie The Butterfly Effect, there’s also the 2015 video game Life Is Strange which explores a very similar concept of time travel and making changes. In the game, a blue butterfly would appear often, especially during significant events, and the game culminates in a huge tornado approaching the town which is the result of all the time-meddling by the main character.
Now, the point of all this is to say that while in prediction models cannot be accurately relied on due to inaccuracies caused by many variables which cannot be accounted for in chaos theory, we should take every small detail into consideration instead of take them for granted, because you may never know if a small thing you neglect can build up into a massive problem in the future. Less than three years ago, a 15-year-old teenager decided to throw a firecracker into Eagle Creek Canyon in Oregon, USA; that resulted in a three-month wildfire that destroyed about 50,000 acres of forest, as well as a woman’s home and the stranding of 152 people. Arthur C. Clarke, British science writer and inventor, described the Mariner 1 as “wrecked by the most expensive hyphen in history”. This 1962 spacecraft was ordered to be destroyed barely 5 minutes into its flight due to an error in its guidance system, an error caused by a fault in the programming due to a missing overbar; regardless, the error is still referred to as a hyphen because the overbar (‾) is an uncommon mathematical symbol and it resembles a hyphen (-) anyway. One of the Founding Fathers of the USA, Benjamin Franklin, illustrates this concept with the following saying:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.
So there we go, that was an explanation of the butterfly effect in both pop culture as well as the actual meaning of it, and also how we should never take even the smallest things for granted. Have you had any experience where something you may have dismissed as a small thing came back to bite you hard in the ass later? Let us know in the comments!