The Other I

January 15, 2010

The flap of a butterfly’s wing

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 11:03 pm

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Margaret Mead

I’ve always been a little bit cynical about what looked to me to be a pretty naive statement by the anthropologist Margaret Mead.  History didn’t seem in my view of it to be filled with examples of overwhelming confirmation that our present world is formed by committed thoughtful citizens.

In fact, it looked to me as if small groups of thinkers have often changed the world for worst, and even more often, the world has changed with little intelligent input from anybody.

But last night I had a better look at Chaos Theory.  Until last night the nub of my understanding consisted of knowing that it had been devised initially by a mathematically gifted meteorologist who said that we would never be able to predict the weather with great accuracy because it was influenced by initial variables we could never possibly know with sufficient precision.

The flap of a butterfly’s wing, he said, in some far flung part of the world, could ultimately lead to a hurricane half way around the world.

I have just discovered how very much more there is to chaos theory.  The implications are fundamental and dramatic, and far wider than mere weather prediction.  What chaos theory says – and the scientific evidence now backing this up is prodigious – is that minute, even infinitesimally small, differences at the beginning of a cycle will become amplified as the cycle is repeated and feeds back on itself.

Observations of these minute differences becoming magnified in nature can explain such diverse occurences  as the cragginess of the shore line, the waves of sand in the desert,  population growth, the dynamics of neurons, even the development of complex life from a simple set of cells, the  dynamics of plate tectonics and economic collapses like credit crunches and the failure of financial systems.

So in terms of chaos theory, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Even a single thoughtful, committed citizen might make a difference.

Unfortunately, I guess an idiot could make a big difference as well.  I won’t make a list of potential candidates for this dubious distinction.

But maybe I won’t concentrate on making a big flap in my life time after all.



  1. It just breaks my heart that it’s called “chaos” theory. I think the entire process of something – from the beginning cycle to the furthest ripple effect – is a beautiful and orderly cause and effect process of nature.

    I think I’ll have to refer to it as the butterfly effect then. The thought of this wonderful process makes me want to sing and dance in the streets, and see what that does for the world. Or something like that.


    Comment by jooliedee — March 4, 2010 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

    • Oh what a wonderful idea! *The Butterfly Effect*. Oh yes, from now on that’s what I’m going to call it too.

      However, if it’s any consolation, when one does stumble on references still referring to it as “chaos theory,” it might help to remember that it is chos theory more than any other that has upset those people who thought the universe worked like a gigantic machine. They thought that if their mathematics were just sophisticated enough, we could explain and predict everything that has ever or ever will happen. Seriously. They are the ones who invaded the world’s financial system for the last decade and did, indeed, cause almost complete chaos.

      Not that I’m against sophisticated mathematics. I’m just not convinced it is the language of God.

      Thank you for the butterfly. It has improved my day. THS


      Comment by theotheri — March 4, 2010 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  2. “…it is the chaos theory more than any other that has upset those people who thought the universe worked like a gigantic machine.”

    Those people wo think the universe (or financial system) can be run on mathematics and logic alone seem to be completely left brained. I would complain about their half brain way of thinking, if I weren’t so completely enamoured and steeped in the right half myself.

    I was thinking about the butterfly effet all day, and the natural order of energy it creates. Logically, what that energy does throughout the universe is unpredictable, but I wouldn’t call that chaos. Yet surely chaos exists in the world as we know it, so at what point is chaos created?

    Chaos is disorder, but the butterfly didn’t do it.


    Comment by jooliedee — March 5, 2010 @ 3:26 am | Reply

    • Chaos and what we see in, I think, is in the eye of the beholder. Rather than destruction and disorganization, chaos might also reflect the opportunity for creativity, for new possibilities. It’s a necessary part of letting go.

      Once, very early in my relationship with my now-husband, he was involved in several demanding projects – writing a book, negotiating a new program at the university, etc. This involved his being away for a week at one point, and I thought it would be a perfect time for me to organize his study for him. Because to my eye it was an incoherent mess.

      Need I say that it took him months to recover? In retrospect, given the number of times he said “did you throw away…?” “where did you put…?” and “I can’t find…”, his response was quite mild. But I have never again presumed that his study isn’t organized.

      I do have a special wonder for butterflies. And though I often find chaos to be a bit scary, I also find it liberating and exciting and challenging.

      What do you think?

      By the way, it was the people with left-hand brains who developed chaos theory. It is fundamentally a mathematical position. What they are pointing out, though, is that we will never be able to specify all the variables in sufficient detail to make valid long-term predictions. Gradually, the smooth curve gets further and further out of whack, and eventually explodes the entire system.

      As usual I won’t say thank you. (But I’m thinking it.)


      Comment by theotheri — March 5, 2010 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  3. After pondering your thoughts yet again, I think I have come to a new realization of the butterfly effect. Okay here it goes.

    First of all, I read the following which does clear up the fantasy of it all a bit for me:

    “In the real world, very small perturbations, such as the flap of a butterfly wing cannot have any impact on the large-scale flow (such as the creation of a tornado). In order to do that, the turbulence generated by the flapping wings must retain some coherant flow structure as the nonlinear interactions create larger scale structure. However, this kinetic energy is dispersed over progressively larger and larger volumes such that it will quickly dissipate into heat as the magnitude of the disturbance to the flow at any single location becomes smaller. The atmosphere has an infinitesimal addition of heat, but the coherent information needed to alter the large-scale flow is lost.”

    But back to this amazing cycle of energy and chaos. With the flap of a butterfly’s wing, or even one thought that is created and flows from the human mind, energy is generated. The mass sum of energy generated in the world indeed has its results in the movement of all the things we see.

    And just like your husband’s study, chaos is a reactive energy, an energy present upon a collision of sorts. All the projects end up together, unsorted, in one place.

    So if we take hold of this chaos, and are proactive in the development of our projects, this is all that is needed of us in regards to chaos. Chaos is only present and damaging when we are not proactive against it.

    (and, btw, a lot of this is what I am learning and obviously does not come 100% from my own thinking. I simply am processing information and recreating it.)

    When we are proactive, we create new things. With the creation of new things, just like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, we can just as well “…prevent a tornado that would otherwise have formed.” (quote excerpt from “The Essence of Chaos” by Prof. Lorenz)

    Ah. How refreshing. Chaos isn’t such a bad thing after all. And on that note, please excuse the chaos of my thoughts expressed here on your wonderful blog as an expression of sorts to be sorted.


    Comment by jooliedee — March 5, 2010 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

    • What you call the “chaos of your thoughts” is absolutely not forgiven! They should be celebrated. Because chaos is so scary, I think it usually takes courage to let go of our fixed ideas because that so often leads to what feels like chaos.

      But I don’t see how we can grow if we can’t learn to tolerate a certain amount of chaos. On the other hand, chaos is probably scary because it can be dangerous. Too much of it at one time and we simply can’t survive. Or at least remain sane.

      Interesting how often our thoughts arrive at similar ports, isn’t it? Terry


      Comment by theotheri — March 6, 2010 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

  4. “I don’t see how we can grow if we can’t learn to tolerate a certain amount of chaos.”


    “Interesting how often our thoughts arrive at similar ports, isn’t it?”



    Comment by jooliedee — March 7, 2010 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: