Butterfly Effect – Concept, History and Applications

We explain what the butterfly effect and the Chaos Theory are. Also, where does its name come from and its various applications.

butterfly effect
The term butterfly effect became popular in 1987 with the book Chaos: the creation of a science.

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 systems so complex that their behavior is unpredictable and their order escapes sight.

The butterfly effect suggests that, given the initial conditions of a chaotic dynamic system, a small, imperceptible alteration can have enormous consequences in the complete system, distinguishing it completely from another totally identical in which said 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 flapping somewhere. According to the theory, that fluttering would be enough to, with enough time, drastically alter the future of said world, since that change would have repercussions and would be transferred to the entire system little by little.

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

Applications of the butterfly effect

The initial intended 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 flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Brazil could affect the climate of North America.

Today there are numerous alleged 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 example of the butterfly illustrates the impossibility of following the extremely complicated dynamics of change and transformation of energy that would link the flutter of the insect with the rest of the changing and complex reality.