What is the butterfly effect?

You have probably heard of the butterfly effect. But do you actually know what it is?  The butterfly effect is, in fact, the idea that small factors can have larger effects. It was originally associated with predicting the weather, since predicting the weather is a very hard thing to do. The weather can be predicted for only very short amounts of time by Meteorologists, but generally, they are very poor since there are always small changes that can affect the outcome. The butterfly effect eventually became a science metaphor and it is also used outside of science in everyday life.


Based on the chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the very sensitive reliance on conditions where even the smallest change in a system which is not linear can lead to very significant differences in a different state later on.  It was named by Edward Lorenz, who was both a mathematician as well as a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was fascinated with the weather and was aware of this effect for a long time before it became known to the public. It came from the example of how the precise time that a hurricane was formed as well as its exact path was influenced by such small factors, like the wings flapping of a faraway butterfly weeks prior.

Lorenz coined this effect during the time that he noticed that repetitive simulations of this weather model would not create the same results in a different situation with the initial data. Basically, even a small difference in the conditions made for a very different turnout.


This idea that small changes make for large effect was used by Henri Poincare and Norbert Lorenz.  Lorenz’s research put the idea of how unstable the atmosphere is into a way that could be measured. He tied together the idea of instability together with the properties of groups of systems that are quite dynamic

The butterfly effect sounds quite complicated, however, it is actually very simple. The degree to which it is completely random can be seen in the outcomes of throwing dice. It is dependent on such specific factors, the specific direction, orientation, and thrust of the throw changes everything in the outcomes, and makes it almost impossible to throw two dice in the same way twice.