Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Butterfly Effect: Where'd it get That Name?


Why is the Butterfly Effect called "The Butterfly Effect?"


We all know, because we paid attention in science class or because of the horrible Ashton Kutcher movie, that the Butterfly Effect refers to the idea that very small changes in initial conditions can have very large effects on outcomes.

We here at the International Academy for Life's Most Important and Obscure Questions (IALMOQ) think about it this way: You're standing on the top of a mountain with a snowball in your hand.  All around the mountain are cute little villages.  Maybe it's a Swiss mountain and all the villages have that cute, graham cracker look.  You know that whichever side of the mountain the ball rolls down will suffer a terrible but fun to watch avalanche.  Here's the problem; you can't throw the snow ball down one side or the other.  You can only throw it straight up.  Is it possible in those conditions to predict which quaint village will get demolished?  Probably not.

Suppose, just as you throw, the wind swirls a bit to the West, down goes the west village.  Or maybe you slip a bit and the ball sails to the East.  Kerpow! East Towne!  The point is, small, very small changes at the moment of the toss will completely change the outcome.  This is called the Butterfly Effect.  But why?

So What's the answer?

While theories about unpredictability in 3 or more variable systems has been around since the 1890's the phrase "The Butterfly Effect" can be traced to one Dr. Edward Lorenz.  In 1961 Lorenz was using an early computer to run weather simulations.  When forced to reload the program in progress, Lorenz backed up in time to a point where he had the available data and then reloaded.  Here's the trick.  The software was running 6 decimal places.  Lorenz only reloaded the first 3.  After a few simulated days, the weather, the entire weather system for the planet had diverged what the previous run.  Lorenz wrote a paper on the subject and it was noted later that the difference between .001 and .000001 in his simulation was about the force of a butterfly flapping its wing.

So, The Butterfly Effect is called the "The Butterfly Effect" because Dr. Lorenz showed, accidentally, that a force no greater than the flapping of butterfly wing, cycled a few hundred thousand times in a complex system, could result in global changes in the weather.

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