The Butterfly Effect

By Sarah

The butterfly effect: the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Yes, that sounded complicated. In simple terms, the butterfly effect, derived from the work of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, is the idea that one small incident can have a major impact on the future. It gets its name from the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wing could cause a tornado.

However, the term is not only confined to weather. It can be used to note small events in one’s life that have ultimately changed the course of their future in massive ways. One of my close friends frequently notes an example of this effect in her life: deciding to go on a last-minute ski trip with her family after some deliberation. While a seemingly mundane decision, she ended up tearing her ACL on that trip, received several surgeries, and this injury altered her relationships and life drastically. Another example is my grandparents. My grandfather decided to attend a random game of Bridge after a friend urged him to. He ended up meeting his now-wife of more than fifty years there, and two kids, six grandchildren, and an entire life together later, he can certainly say that that small decision was ultimately monumental.

One can see the butterfly effect in terms of history as well. The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna rejected Adolf Hitler’s application twice. One can imagine how history may have been different if he had focused his efforts on arts as opposed to mass destruction and evil. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ultimately sent the world into World War I — a catalyst that almost didn’t even happen.

An especially interesting historical example is the Chernobyl Disaster, which has been recently documented in TV shows. The disaster itself was a nuclear explosion that rendered a part of Ukraine uninhabitable and negatively affected the health of thousands. However, it could have been even worse. According to FS, three workers volunteered to turn off underwater valves to avoid a second explosion, the likes of which would have left half of Europe uninhabitable for half a million years. This action, seemingly small, would kill the wings of a butterfly that would have completely devastated humanity.

The butterfly effect teaches us one major lesson — that life is fragile. One small decision can completely change our life course. Looking back on one’s life-altering decisions is a good practice in self-awareness. I sometimes like to reflect on my personal butterfly effects. Choosing where I went to high school has drastically impacted my life, giving me friends and experiences that I am eternally grateful for. It is sometimes jarring to think that the decision at fourteen to attend a different school could have left me in a completely different situation, with a whole other set of friends and memories. Maybe I would be quieter? Louder? Sadder? I will never know.

If anything, the butterfly effect should teach us to contemplate decisions thoroughly and think of what impact they might have on our lives. Any seemingly small decision could send us on a completely different path. It happens all the time.

Sources: Wikipedia and FS

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