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    « Dirt | Main | Why Evolution is a fact, but how it works is a theory. »

    The Butterfly Effect

    blue_morpho_butterfly_large.jpgCan a butterfly flapping it’s wings can cause a hurricane?

    Well, maybe. Really complex systems like the weather and ecosystems are pretty, well, complex. (How my wife drives is also a complex system but so far has resisted any scientific understanding.)

    The butterfly effect is simply this: Any change in the initial conditions of a complex non-linear system creates wildly different outcomes.

    A more technical description would be: sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory where small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear dynamical system produce increasingly large variations in the long term behavior of the system. Whew.

    The phrase The Butterfly Effect refers to the idea that the single flap of a butterfly’s wings change the initial conditions of the system enough to cause large-scale phenomena (hurricanes and such) since any variation in the initial conditions is vastly magnified with each iteration. And every flap of every butterfly wing in the world continually changes those conditions. (Someone passing gas in France probably caused the Katrina hurricane.) Now you know why you don’t want to be a weatherman. It basically means that we’ll never be able to predict the weather for more than a few days.



    See that equation? Looks tricky doesn’t it? You can’t understand how my wife drives either.

    Comparing the butterfly effect to the domino effect is slightly misleading. In the domino effect there is dependence on the initial sensitivity, but whereas a simple linear row of dominoes would cause one event to initiate another similar one, the butterfly effect amplifies the condition upon each iteration. Also, dominos are a game played by old people in Miami.

    Animal populations can be subject to the same phenomena.

    Predator-prey systems have complex dynamics. A bio system with two variables such as rabbits and foxes can create a system that is much more complex than is readily apparent. Lack of foxes means that the rabbit population can increase, but increasing numbers of rabbits means foxes have more food and are likely to survive and reproduce, which in turn decreases the number of rabbits.

    So please, don’t pass gas. Forecasting the weather is hard enough.

    Reader Comments (6)

    I've studied chaos theory in university. There were tons of equations involved. And the sensitivity towards initial conditions thing was interesting.

    No where near as interesting as studying the effects of people passing gas though. Maybe another person will pass gas and negate any wildly disruptive result...

    08.14 | Unregistered CommenterVincent

    Interesting, although the literal meaning of the phrase "the butterfly effect" is not as important as the metaphorical.

    Although I see where chaos has merit to an extent saying that a butterfly caused a hurricane is misleading as it took many factors.

    If a man died in a car crash there are many things that lead up to that event some more important than others. Saying a butterfly caused a hurricane is like saying if the man who died hadn't watched the Today show feature for a few extra minutes than he usually did he wouldn't have been hit because he wouldn't have been there at that time if he hadn't watched it. So blame Katie Couric.

    So I suggest Katie Couric killed this man!

    Of course not but it is a similar situation. Don't blame the small factors or nobody would ever have to take responsibiliy for anything they did. Jet streams, yearly climate change, global warming, ect are what caused hurricane Katrina even if a Frenchman flatulence played its part it wasn't in the top 1000 causes so it is negligible.

    PS. They play a lot of dominoes in Texas, too!

    Nice post.This one is indeed brain-stimulating.You made me think the unthinkable; simplify the complex thoughts and relate passing gas to the evolution of the world.Sound silly but you made a good deal here.

    09.23 | Unregistered CommenterBhelle

    There were tons of equations involved. And the sensitivity towards initial conditions thing was interesting.

    Interesting topic alright. I am going to oversimplify this but... If something like a butterfly flaps his wings, does the air just not travel for a few short inches and then stop?

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