When Edward Lorenz gave a talk in 1972 entitled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?,” he distilled the main essence of his thoughts on predictability, interdependence and “chaos theory” in one pithy question.
Lorenz was a mathemetician and a meteorologist who, in the early 1960s, discovered that weather simulation models he was developing were exhibiting chaotic, non-predictive behavior, despite a fixed set of variables and no apparent equipment malfunction. Two identical weather simulation machines, side-by-side, given the same variables to process. Wildly different results. How?
Lorenz eventually concluded that it was a “dependence on initial conditions” — in this case, the fact of computers rounding variables to decimal points: 3.12879 expressed as 3.13, etc. Even extending the number of decimal points in the simulators did not produce matching results from the weather machines. Minute variations gave rise to wildly different chains of events.
Human civilization supposedly thrives on order and predictability; it means that people will obey traffic laws and pay their taxes, show up to work on time, and keep their word. Predictability gives us a sense of order, and order lends itself in varying degrees to unity, to nationalism, to legality, and to community. Whether we like it or not, much of our lives are governed by these ideas of order and predictability, and by our assumptions that these ideals are universal and natural. And indeed, nature does follow its own order with periodic population swells, predictable animal behavior, and food chains, but in attempting to mimic or find equilibrium with natural conditions, humans never seem to be able to get it quite right.
With all variables seemingly accounted for, chaos often predominates over predictive systems, and we are left wondering what clue we are missing in our search for order in natural systems. In every field of inquiry, scientists have come up against certain problems that until the advent of chaos theory were written off as unsolvable.