The butterfly effect is a concept in Chaos Theory which implies a small event in one place can cause a larger effect elsewhere at a later time. Specifically, that the movement of a butterfly’s wings in one location can create minor changes, which in return can effect larger changes in the weather elsewhere. The name of the theory was coined in 1963 by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist and mathematician.

Origins of TheoryEdit

In 1961, Lorenz, who worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was running a computer model in order to predict the weather. Rather than run the model from the beginning, he decided to rerun it from the approximate middle by imputing the same conditions that existed at the time. He discovered later that although the results initially matched, they subsequently diverged into a different scenario. Puzzled, Lorenz discovered the only change was that he had entered .506 instead of the full .506127 into the computer.

He later published his study of this in a 1963 paper called Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow. He later stated one colleague, remarking on his theory, said that one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever. It was later changed by Lorenz to “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings set in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas.” The quote, although oft repeated since then, has tended to vary from location to location.

Theory in Popular MediaEdit

The butterfly effect has been the subject of numerous books, movies, and television shows over the years, in which a minor divergence of one event in a fictional story can cause drastic outcomes. Normally, the catalyst is the result of time travel. It should be noted it is a general argument that if indeed history could be altered by a time traveler, than the very act of a person traveling in time would cause the butterfly effect. As such, a traveler would inevitably return to a different reality they departed. Some examples in the media include the following:

  • In the 1952 Ray Bradbury science fiction short story “A Sound of Thunder” people travel into the past on a safari to kill a dinosaur that was destined to die by another means. They are warned by the guide that the slightest alteration in the past may change the future. During the hunt, one of party panics and leaves the approved trail and as a result, accidently crushes and kills a butterfly. When they return people behave differently, words are spelled strangely, and a different person has won a presidential race.
  • In the 1946 Frank Capra movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey is an unassuming businessman, husband, and family man living in a small town. As a result of a crisis, he tries to kill himself. Rescued by his guardian angel, he states he wishes he was never born. To show him the effect his life has had on others, the angel grants the wish with the help of God. When he returns home, George is stunned to see the result his non-existence had on the world, especially his town, friends, and family. In a pivotal scene, he races into a cemetery to find his brother dead and buried. George rants how that is impossible, that he served in World War II as a pilot and shot down an enemy fighter and saved the lives of American soldiers on a troop transport. The angel informs him since he was not there to save his brother when he fell into an icy pond, all the men on the transport in fact died. Realizing the error of his way, George pleads for life back and it is returned.
  • The 1980-1981 television anthology series The Dark Room, featured a story called “Stay Tuned, We Will be Right Back.” A father buys his son a crystal radio and while working with it, starts getting broadcasts from 1942. After getting over his initial surprise, he discovers he is also receiving coded message in German between a U-Boat and Germany. Deciphering it, he realizes it is the same sub which sank his father’s troop transport during World War II, killing him. The father buys a transmitter set and begins sending messages to the sub providing the wrong coordinates of the troop convoy in the hope his father will live. He falls asleep and awakens the next morning to find his father alive, but his wife and son no longer exist. Further, through his actions, Germany won the war and now occupies the US.