What is the butterfly effect?

We explain what is the butterfly effect and Chaos Theory. In addition, where does its name and its varied applications come from.

  1. What is the butterfly effect?

The butterfly effect is a concept belonging to the so-called Chaos Theory , which in turn is the study of certain mathematical, biological, physical or other phenomena, considering them as complex systems that their behavior is unpredictable and their order escapes the view.

The butterfly effect suggests that, given the initial conditions of a chaotic dynamic system, a small imperceptible alteration can have enormous consequences in the entire system, completely distinguishing it from a completely identical one in which the disturbance has not occurred.

Its name comes from the example used by the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz to explain it, in which there are two identical worlds whose only difference is that in one there is one more butterfly fluttering somewhere. According to the theory, that flutter would be enough to, with enough time, drastically alter the future of that world, since that change would impact and move to the complete system little by little.

However, the term butterfly effect would not be popularized until 1987, when the book Chaos appeared  : the creation of a science  by James Gleick, which was a bestseller and spread Norton’s theories. Since then it has been used frequently in works of scientific dissemination and in numerous fiction pieces , such as the famous  Jurassic  Park  (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg, or even more, the film  The Butterfly Effect  (2004), in which The aim is to put this theory into practice through a story of possible worlds.

  1. Butterfly Effect Applications

The intended initial application of this theory had to do with the difficulty of accurately predicting the weather . Norton wondered in his studies if the flight of a seagull could eventually induce a tropical storm, or if the beating of the wings of a butterfly in Brazil could affect the climate of North America.

There are nowadays many intended demonstrations or applications of the butterfly effect, in aspects as diverse as mathematical simulation and self-help. It is not true, however, that such a connection is demonstrable; precisely, the butterfly example illustrates the impossibility of following the very complicated dynamics of change and transformation of the energy that would link the flutter of the insect with the rest of the changing and complex reality .

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