Chaos Theory and Writing

Is any event or action truly random? My husband, who is somewhat of a technical trading genius, has studied Chaos Theory, initially a field of physics and mathematics involving structures of turbulence and self-similar forms of fractal geometry. He believes that just about anything considered random can be charted if there is enough data gathered over a sufficient period of time.

Researchers are trying to use chaos theory to predict events for complex systems like weather, though I believe, because of tenets of chaos theory, they've concluded that particular prediction isn't possible.

Edward Lorenz

In 1961, meteorologist Edward Lorenz of MIT simulated weather patterns on a computer. The PC he was using had limited memory so after he saw a particular pattern he wanted to recover the data. He started the program again, but in the middle of the sequence instead of the beginning, and he rounded the numerical values off to 3 places. Originally, he had used 6 decimal places.

To his surprise, the data this time resulted in a pattern that looked like the image you see above. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.) The resemblance of the resulting fractal pattern to a butterfly caused the term to be known as the Butterfly Effect.

Butterfly Effect

You may be more familiar with chaos theory being called the Butterfly Effect. If nothing else, you may have seen the movie starring Ashton Kucher which may make more sense to you now that you've read this blog post.

The change in decimal places, he discovered, had caused the different result. According to conventional thought of that time, everything should have worked the same. The sequential pattern should have been very similar to the original, but it wasn't. Lorenz couldn't believe the fourth and fifth decimal places, which weren't even measurable using reasonable methods, could have such a big effect on the outcome of his experiment. He discovered he was wrong. The amount of difference in the starting points of the two curves is so small that it's comparable to a butterfly flapping its wings, and that coupled with the resultant fractal pattern is how his discovery came to be known as the butterfly effect.

Ian Stewart

In Stewart's bookDoes God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, he says: The flapping of a single butterfly's wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month's time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn't happen. Or maybe one that wasn't going to happen, does.

In science-speak: this phenomenon, common to chaos theory, is also known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Initial Question

So, back to my initial question. Is anything truly random when even the smallest change in the beginning can dramatically change the end result. As a writer, and therefore an armchair philosopher of sorts, I find this fascinating because writers work with the butterfly effect with every book, play, or movie written. We were practicing experts in chaos theory long before the label existed. We know how one small act can change a life or several lives or change a world. The literature, plays, movies, and world events of our culture are rife with these butterfly effects.

You May Recognize

A man commits suicide in his cousin's hunting lodge leaving the cousin's father in line for the throne, but the heir apparent renounces. The cousin eventually ends up on the throne only to be assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 leading to a chain of events resulting in WWI. (Assassination of Franz Ferdinand.)

A man decides he needs a pack of cigarettes so he stops by a convenience store, gets shot by a robber, ends up brain-damaged and becomes a different man than he was. (Regarding Henry)

Two women decide to take a road trip in a 1966 Thunderbird but a series of ill-fated encounters and resulting bad decisions culminates in their driving off a cliff at the end of the flick. (Thelma and Louise)

A man decides to relive a childhood pleasure of hiking in the hills and finds a lost dog and takes him in, the dog leads him to rescue a woman he falls in love with, and the trio end up hunted by a genetic experiment gone bad. (Watchers by Dean Koontz)

A shy woman marries an older widower and moves to Manderley his home setting off a chain of events that leads to the truth of his first wife's death, destruction of the mansion, and their self-exile from Britain. (Rebecca)

However, I think what is called the Butterfly Effect is most eloquently expressed by Robert Frost.

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Takeaway Truth

The butterfly effect is just another name for that writer's game we call what if.


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