The Butterfly Effect

In 1960, MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz tried to model the weather. He wrote simplified equations and solved them on a primitive computer. Sure enough, his output did behave a lot like real weather. His colleagues watched over his shoulder. They were fascinated.

One day, Lorenz tried to continue a run he’d done the day before. He restarted it halfway through. He put in a number from the first run. The output started out just the way it had the day before. Then it began to diverge, crazily.

The equations were the same. The starting point was the same. But the results diverged. Lorenz checked his computer. He checked his arithmetic. Nothing had changed. Same equations, but on subsequent days the results diverged.

There was one difference, but how could it matter? Lorenz rounded off the fourth decimal place of the starting number on the second day.

He stopped to consider: All weather predictions do what his program just did. You can predict the weather for the day after tomorrow (to a certain amount of accuracy). Stretch that to a week, and your prediction always departs from reality.

The implication was staggering. We’ve always presumed that if you barely change a cause, you’ll barely change the effect. Suddenly, Lorenz saw that the weather would change utterly if you started things out just a little differently.

Meteorologists began talking about something they called the Butterfly Effect. The idea was that if a butterfly chances to flap his wings in Beijing in March, then, by August, hurricane patterns in the Atlantic will be completely different. Not long after that day in 1960, the scientific world began changing. Perhaps all kinds of nasty problems we can’t solve are nasty just because we can never state them accurately enough.

Lorenz had taken the first step on the road to showing that our world is far more chaotic than we dreamed. For generations engineers and scientists have been predicting things. But we’ve only predicted those things that are predictable — the breaking load on beams, the thrust of a rocket.

And weather, of course, is just one face of the larger thing we all want to know, but which we never shall predict. Somewhere in the world, a butterfly will always flap its wings and thwart our age-old craving to predict our own future.

Tonight, as I just woke up, I had a dream that matched this premise (which was the basis for a movie called The Butterfly Effect). As with all dreams, it’s a little fuzzy even now as I come out of it.

It started innocently enough (and I don’t think I started it) with a single person. Slowly, with each “reset” we ended up adding more people to the fold, making it more difficult to track all the changes down. As something we did before each reset, we would perform sutble things in our lives. In one instance, I had let a purse snatcher run by while the previous instance of this situation I tripped him. That small effect was huge. The capture of the purse snatcher led to the fact that his gang was now after me, that I was rewarded for my efforts, and was now a target for a stalker. This led me to buying a gun (although by the “rules” that people claim in dreams is that you won’t do anything you normally wouldn’t, I can’t see myself doing this). The gun led me to using it which resulted in the death of another person. Butterfly effect indeed.

By the middle of it, when all hell was breaking loose, I had upwards of a dozen of my friends involved. In order to right the balance, we had to make changes to over twenty peoples lives

The last “scene” of my dream I remember is the final element of the puzzle. A girl (who I don’t know and can’t recall now) I’m supposed to contact and get her back into the group so we can perform a reset. We finally decided that we could go back and fix everything, getting the universe back to where it was originally. All the players were together and we knew what to do and where the root cause was. Unfortunately we couldn’t get ahold of this final person. Then she shows up, with a gun. I distinctly remember yelling out my ATM PIN number to the group and tossing my wallet in the fear I would get shot (I guess the reset involves me having to do something with it, and without the PIN number the group would be at a standstill). During the conversation with her, she finally was convinced to toss the gun away.

Like a good Hitchcock film, this is where the twist comes up. You think everything is great and rosy and will work itself out. Then she reveals (ahh, the reveal) that she’s rigged with dynamite. She detonates it and the fireball starts to spread out. I ran towards her but rather than being consumed by the fire and sent back to when the last reset was, the flames dwindle down it and it’s revealed that I’m now an EMS professional and am saving her life. We are the two survivors that have to right things now but now with the addition of her, the group is one body larger.

The moral of course (like dreams have a moral) is that we shouldn’t worry about what we can’t change and that even given the power to change, that change may have a much farther reaching effect than you could ever imagine and never get you closer to your goal.

Man, sometimes I wonder about our sub-concious and the powerful things it can do.