If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, does it cause a tornado in Texas?
Inherent to the theory is the idea that extremely small changes produce enormous effects, but ones that can only be described fully in retrospect.
Accurate prediction is somewhat impossible. There are many great examples of this in nature, and climate change is one of them.
Small atmospheric changes in one part of the globe can produce enormous effects years later in another region, thanks to the system feeding back changes into itself.
Heating the planet by one degree Celsius will, due to a quirk of chemistry, reduce the ability of the world’s oceans to hold carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide will leak into the atmosphere as a result, which will heat the planet. This will feed back into the climate system and cause more carbon dioxide to leak from the oceans into the atmosphere.
If the cycle begins to self-sustain, a runaway global warming effect will occur – the same kind of process that turned Venus into a 900-degree oven.
Life seems unpredictable: every day there are billions of occurrences that go unnoticed but which can have a great impact not only on you, but on the rest of the World. If you look closely, you can see patterns that determine them.
Throughout history, scientists have tried to identify the rules that describe, for example, the movement of pendulums, planets in orbit … and even the spacecraft that they sent to the Moon.
And many phenomena of nature are governed by physical laws that allow their changes to be predicted.
However, the explanations for other events, such as changes in the climate or the flow of blood through the heart, seemed impossible. For centuries, these complex systems were considered random.
The truth is that they were not, but the necessary mathematics were not available to understand their patterns, until the emergence of chaos theory.
In the 1960’s when the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz came across this phenomenon while he was studying the climate through a mathematical model of air currents in the atmosphere.
One day, he wanted to repeat one of the simulations, but chose the intermediate data of the result of the first computation as the initial conditions of the second.
The computer used six decimals during the calculations, but rounded off to three on the printed result.
The difference between the data to three or to six decimals is less than 0.0001, so the results of the second run should have been very similar to those of the first.
However, the two climatic predictions took completely separate paths. After ruling out mechanical failures in the computer, he came to the conclusion:
The properties of the system meant that small changes in the initial conditions led to significantly different results. These observations were the origin of the term ‘Butterfly Effect’.
Mathematicians, meteorologists, anthropologists, sociologists, physicists, philosophers, computer scientists, engineers and economists began to see beyond the apparent random disorder of nature, finding connections in the behaviour of financial markets, meteorological phenomena, the movement of certain celestial bodies, the evolution of an ecosystem …