Butterfly effect

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The butterfly effect is a metaphor that encapsulates the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory; namely a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. Although this may appear to be an esoteric and unusual behavior, it is exhibited by very simple systems: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position. The butterfly effect is a common trope in fiction when presenting scenarios involving time travel and with "what if" cases where one storyline diverges at the moment of a seemingly minor event resulting in two significantly different outcomes.

Contents

Theory

Recurrence, the approximate return of a system towards its initial conditions, together with sensitive dependence on initial conditions are the two main ingredients for chaotic motion. They have the practical consequence of making complex systems, such as the weather, difficult to predict past a certain time range (approximately a week in the case of weather), since it is impossible to measure the starting atmospheric conditions completely accurately.

Origin of the concept and the term

The term "butterfly effect" itself is related to the work of Edward Lorenz, and is based in chaos theory and sensitive dependence on initial conditions, already described in the literature in a particular case of the three-body problem by Henri Poincaré in 1890.[1] He later proposed that such phenomena could be common, say in meteorology. In 1898[1] Jacques Hadamard noted general divergence of trajectories in spaces of negative curvature, and Pierre Duhem discussed the possible general significance of this in 1908.[1] The idea that one butterfly could eventually have a far-reaching ripple effect on subsequent historic events seems first to have appeared in A Sound of Thunder, a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury about time travel (see Literature and print here) although Lorenz made the term popular. In 1961, Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127 the computer would hold. The result was a completely different weather scenario.[2] Lorenz published his findings in a 1963 paper[3] for the New York Academy of Sciences noting[citation needed] that "One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings could change the course of weather forever." Later speeches and papers by Lorenz used the more poetic butterfly. According to Lorenz, upon failing to provide a title for a talk he was to present at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972, Philip Merilees concocted Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? as a title. Although a butterfly flapping its wings has remained constant in the expression of this concept, the location of the butterfly, the consequences, and the location of the consequences have varied widely.[4]

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