Debunking the Butterfly Effect

These days we are all familiar with the concept of the “butterfly effect.” The usual formulation goes something like this: when a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world (often the Amazon jungle) it can cause a hurricane in another part of the world. The colossal disparity in magnitude between cause and effect embodied in the idea has fired the collective imagination around the globe.

Butterflies surround a glowing ball of energy

At the level of our lives, the famous butterfly effect is largely an urban myth. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

The butterfly effect was “discovered” in 1961 by MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He was working at the time as an assistant professor in MIT’s department of meteorology where one of his projects involved an early computer program designed to simulate weather. As so often happens in science, his discovery was accidental. Looking to save some input time, he rounded one of a dozen numbers representing atmospheric conditions from .506127 down to .506. To his amazement, the tiny reduction utterly transformed his long-term forecast. Lorenz wrote about the experience in a 1972 paper titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The title was imaginative, intriguing, and provocative. A completely new idea was born. Vast opportunities for exciting scientific speculation suddenly sprang into being.

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Why Personal Philosophies of Life Are Becoming Rare

The Cosmos Fascinates Us

Einstein had his cosmic religious feeling, but today’s preference for emotion at the expense of reason represses or impairs the urge to work out a personal philosophy of life. (Photo: S. Brunier/ESO)

What Einstein referred to as the “cosmic religious feeling” is a drive, like sex, hunger, thirst, and so on. Fear exists to make one run when flight is necessary. Anger makes one fight when struggle is necessary. Thirst makes one drink to avoid death by dehydration. Hunger makes one eat to avoid death by starvation. Lust makes one copulate to ensure the survival of the species. The cosmic religious feeling makes one quest for answers – the purpose being to advance the cause of Man’s ever-growing consciousness and to enhance our scientific understanding of the cosmos. The tools of this quest or task are introspection and intellectual striving. One of its interesting by-products is art.

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