“Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set a tornado in Texas?” (Scholarpedia.org: “The Butterfly Effect”)
In 1972, American meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz (1917-2008) invented a theory to predict complex weather patterns more accurately. His concept was based on the proposition that small actions can have enormous effects – thus the statement above. This idea has been used not only to examine weather and its complexity, but also other areas and fields of study.
Ben Franklin wrote a poem in the 18th century to highlight this perspective long before Lorenz:
“For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
World War I started as a result of actions by a 19-year-old Serbian named Gavrilo Princip. He was a participant in a plot to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the sole heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A previous attempt that day had failed. Afterward, Princip had stopped to buy a sandwich when he saw the archduke and his wife in their touring car, turning around just outside the sandwich shop. They had taken a wrong route. Princip rushed out and shot both fatally. World War I resulted, which brought about World War II and, then, the Cold War. This series of events still affects us today. It all came about as a result of one man’s hunger for a sandwich.
This Butterfly Effect has been used in hindsight to explain the 1986 Challenger explosion: It was the Challenger’s 10th trip into outer space. Temperatures on the morning of the launch dropped below freezing. Some engineers were concerned that the low temperatures would affect the rubber seals (called O-rings) on the rocket boosters. The concern was disregarded and the Challenger rocket was launched. Just 73 seconds later, the Challenger rocket exploded, killing all seven crew members including civilian public school teacher Christa McAuliffe. This disaster forever changed NASA and the space program.
Unfortunately for all of us, we don’t often know which decisions we make in our lives will have long-term consequences until much, much later. Every one of us who is older than 40 can think of an event that has deeply affected our lives. Only upon reflection and analysis can we discover the magnitude of a decision we made without much thought or consideration at the time.
So, what’s the solution? How do we avoid the negative consequences of the Butterfly Effect? How do we use this understanding about the role of chance in our lives to our benefit?
Here are some words of wisdom that might guide us:
• “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” (Will Rogers)
• “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to live with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” (Francis Bacon)
• “Here’s some advice. Stay alive.” (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games)
• “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” (Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture)
The Butterfly Effect touches all of us. The world is a complex place with many systems which we don’t always understand. We can never entirely avoid the negative effects of our decisions, but we can mitigate them by reflecting on what we do, considering long-term consequences and then changing direction when necessary. One of author Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits” has helped me a great deal: “Plan with the end in mind.”