What is the Butterfly Effect?

What has this effect got to do with the field of mathematics and weather predictions?

Updated - March 23, 2021 12:52 pm IST

Published - March 23, 2021 12:50 pm IST



It is easy to confuse this picture with a work of art. The pattern is mesmerising and it evokes powerful mental associations. But this is not art, it is mathematics! Puzzled? Well, let’s take you to the works of American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, a pioneer of Chaos Theory. His findings led to the coinage of the term “Butterfly Effect.”

Chaos Theory

When Lorenz was studying weather patterns, he noticed that small differences at the start of a process caused major changes later. Being a mathematician, he used statistical forecasting techniques to evaluate his findings. This led to the birth of Chaos Theory, a branch of mathematics that focusses on varying patterns in the initial stages of any dynamic system (like the atmosphere) that could impact precise, long-standing predictions.

After Lorenz recognised the chaotic behaviour in the mathematical modelling of weather systems, he researched further on the subject.

Why Butterfly?

His observations eventually led him to what has now become the butterfly effect, a term that has stemmed from an academic paper he presented in 1972: Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?

The idea conveyed is that the flapping of a butterfly might create minute changes in the atmosphere that could alter the path, delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado.

Chaos theory has enabled us to realise that it is nearly impossible to predict weather with reasonable accuracy beyond two or three weeks. This field of mathematics has now spread its wings in nearly every branch of science.

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