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Opening Arguments


So, this butterfly goes into a bar in Brazil, and the next day, it Indiana has floods:

Translated into mass culture, the butterfly effect has become a metaphor for the existence of seemingly insignificant moments that alter history and shape destinies. Typically unrecognized at first, they create threads of cause and effect that appear obvious in retrospect, changing the course of a human life or rippling through the global economy.

In the 2004 movie "The Butterfly Effect" - we watched it so you don't have to - Ashton Kutcher travels back in time, altering his troubled childhood in order to influence the present, though with dismal results. In 1990's "Havana," Robert Redford, a math-wise gambler, tells Lena Olin, "A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. They can even calculate the odds."

Such borrowings of Lorenz's idea might seem authoritative to unsuspecting viewers, but they share one major problem: They get his insight precisely backwards. The larger meaning of the butterfly effect is not that we can readily track such connections, but that we can't. To claim a butterfly's wings can cause a storm, after all, is to raise the question: How can we definitively say what caused any storm, if it could be something as slight as a butterfly? Lorenz's work gives us a fresh way to think about cause and effect, but does not offer easy answers.

Chaos theory is about, you know, chaos, not certainty in cause and effect. You may now return to your global-warming bible. Hope you didn't lose your place.

Posted in: Science


Harl Delos
Wed, 06/11/2008 - 10:29am

I'm not sure anyone who admits having deliberately gone to an Ashton Kutcher movie is qualified to render judgment about anything, even whether the popcorn is salty and the floor is sticky.

Lorenz was a latecomer. He didn't talk about the Butterfly Effect until 1972. My brothers and I generated a lot of chaos, though, when we were growing up, decades earlier.