The Butterfly Effect
Hamza Iqbal Chughtai
“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby…. changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.”
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 said, “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.
The butterfly effect is also known as chaos theory is the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a typhoon. A butterfly cannot cause a typhoon by flapping its wings but it means that small events can catalyze the starting conditions of a complex system. As some systems are very sensitive to their initial conditions, a tiny difference in the initial push can cause a big difference.
“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 tiny. 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 reality is that small change in a complex system may have no effect or a massive one, it is virtually impossible to predict which will turn out to be the case. Let’s go through some historic examples of the butterfly effect.
The bombing of Nagasaki: The US intended to bomb the city Kuroko, with an ammunition factory as the target but the cloudy weather prevented the factory to be seen by the military. The airplanes flew over the city three times before pilots gave up and they decided to bomb Nagasaki. So, imagine what history would have been if that day had not been cloudy.
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 estimation and that of scholars, this rejection went on to shape his metamorphosis from an aspiring bohemian artist into the human manifestation of evil.
The Chernobyl disaster, the Cuban missile crisis, and many such more examples exist that show how fragile the world is, and how dire the effects of a tiny event 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. For some kinds of systems, we can try to create favorable starting conditions but that’s as far as our power extends. Why do we love the idea that people might be secretly working together to control and organize the world? Because we do not like to face the fact that our world runs on a combination of chaos, incompetence, and confusion. If we think that we can identify every catalyst and control or predict outcomes, we are only setting ourselves up for a fall.