The Butterfly Effect

You know that line about how a butterfly flapping its wings in China can lead to a tornado in Kansas, and how it's used to demonstrate that there is some connectivity to seemingly random events?

Yeah, that's all wrong.

"In the paper, Lorenz claimed the large effects of tiny atmospheric events pose both a practical problem, by limiting long-term weather forecasts, and a philosophical one, by preventing us from isolating specific causes of later conditions. The "innumerable" interconnections of nature, Lorenz noted, mean a butterfly's flap could cause a tornado - or, for all we know, could prevent one. Similarly, should we make even a tiny alteration to nature, "we shall never know what would have happened if we had not disturbed it," since subsequent changes are too complex and entangled to restore a previous state.

So a principal lesson of the butterfly effect is the opposite of Redford's line: It is extremely hard to calculate such things with certainty. There are many butterflies out there. A tornado in Texas could be caused by a butterfly in Brazil, Bali, or Budapest. Realistically, we can't know. "It's impossible for humans to measure everything infinitely accurately," says Robert Devaney, a mathematics professor at Boston University. "And if you're off at all, the behavior of the solution could be completely off." When small imprecisions matter greatly, the world is radically unpredictable."

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