Our Chaotic Universe: The Butterfly Effect


Your decision to get Italian food tonight may have just changed your future career. Every action, every change, every decision a person makes, every shift in the universe, no matter how miniscule and infinitesimal, can have tremendous consequences. In 1963, Edward Lorenz posed a question to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asking, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” This became the introduction to Lorenz’s concept of the butterfly effect, which influences every person and system. 

The butterfly effect explains the idea that persists through time, science, mathematics, mechanics, and society that one small change to a system can have a significant impact. Lorenz, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorology professor, invented the butterfly effect as a way to describe the chaos of systems, and how you won’t always get the same results every time. He stated that he wanted to “illustrate the idea that some complex dynamical systems exhibit unpredictable behaviors such that small variances in the initial conditions could have profound and widely divergent effects on the system’s outcomes” (Vernon 5). Thus, the butterfly effect became the basis for the chaos theory, an integral part of mathematics and mechanics that studies the unpredictability of systems. 

Lorenz’s introduction of the butterfly effect challenged the ideas of Pierre-Simon Laplace, a renowned scholar, as he declared that if we knew all the physical laws of nature, then “nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to [our] eyes” (“Understanding the Butterfly Effect | American Scientist.” 5). In past years, scientists believed that the world was unpredictable because it is complicated, but in recent years that was proven wrong, even simple systems can be unpredictable, because of the butterfly effect (“Access Britannica Academic” 1). 

Those invested in the field of mathematics will tell you that it is important to input numbers exactly, and that rounding and shortening them makes a difference. This is the butterfly effect. When Edward Lorenz began running his experiments to test his butterfly effect he input a set of data into his computer and printed the output. Then he decided to run the test again, and when he did so he got a drastically different result. Through reviewing his inputs, he found that he had used the number 0.506 instead of the full 0.506127. The difference of three decimal places resulted in a major change in his output (McFadden 39).

The butterfly theory is also important to the field of quantum mechanics as chaos is an integral part of quantum theory. Quantum theory explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level, which is inherently chaotic. One cannot always predict the results of a system because it has deterministic chaos, however, the inconsistency of the system does largely depend on the sensitivity of it (Halpern 9).

Some social science researchers have also discovered the presence of the butterfly effect in their work. Arrow, McGrath, and Berdahl, social psychology researchers, analyzed how the chaos theory can account for small group behavior (Bright and Pryor 6). People, in short, act like anything else in the universe and are unpredictable. This unpredictability means that small actions taken by an individual, especially in a small group, can have a significant impact.

Despite some tests proving the butterfly effect exists, other tests prove a certain no-butterfly effect, which means that some quantum systems actually work to prevent changes in the present. Nikolai Sinitsyn explained an experiment that they ran in which a circuit forward and backward, demonstrating how the butterfly effect might not exist, at least with regards to time. Sinitsyn described the experiment as, “The evolution that they considered involved a circuit that evolves in a complex way. The circuit applies many quantum gates randomly to many qubits. The gates perform an operation on the qubits, and each gate represents a step in time, like the tick of a clock” (Sinitsyn 7). The operation was first run backwards and throughout its course the past was altered, so when the operation was reversed, the researchers expected the present to be different, but it wasn’t. In fact, the circuit actually ensured the present didn’t change on its own. This singular experiment shows how the butterfly effect might not always work, and there could even sometimes be a reverse butterfly effect, but it does not effectively deny the butterfly effect’s existence in mechanics and mathematics. 

The butterfly effect persists throughout the universe and shapes our daily lives. It may not affect every single system, but even so, the smallest decisions and alterations can have an enormous impact. So that Italian food that you ordered may have altered the course of your life, or it may just be a good meal with no real influence. 


Works Cited

“Access Britannica Academic.” Britannica Academic, academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/chaos-theory/22470.


Bang, Starts With A. “Chaos Theory, The Butterfly Effect, And The Computer Glitch That Started It All.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Oct. 2022, www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2018/02/13/chaos-theory-the-butterfly-effect-and-the-computer-glitch-that-started-it-all/?sh=643b4acb69f6.


Bright, Jim E.H., and Robert G.L. Pryor. “The Chaos Theory of Careers: a user’s guide.” Career Development Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, June 2005, pp. 291+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A133756147/AONE?u=nysl_ca_galhsl&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=aaa3eb02. Accessed 8 Nov. 2022.


McFadden, Christopher. “Is The Butterfly Effect a Real Thing?” What Is The Butterfly Effect?, Interesting Engineering, 25 Apr. 2019, interestingengineering.com/science/what-exactly-is-the-butterfly-effect.


Sinitsyn, Nikolai. “The Quantum Butterfly Noneffect.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 21 Sept. 2020, www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-quantum-butterfly-noneffect/.


“Understanding the Butterfly Effect | American Scientist.” American Scientist, 12 Apr. 2017, https://www.americanscientist.org/article/understanding-the-butterfly-effect.


Vernon, Jamie L. “Understanding the Butterfly Effect.” American Scientist, vol. 105, no. 3, 2017, pp. 130. ProQuest, https://lib-proxy01.skidmore.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/understanding-butterfly-effect/docview/1891393185/se-2.