Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect

It’s called the butterfly effect, a term coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1972 when he presented a paper to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. His paper was entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?

That is not as preposterous as it might seem when you consider what Lorenz was really saying. The butterfly effect is the first part of Chaos Theory. Now, the holiday season is certainly chaotic; full of panic attacks over things left undone, disorganization that threatens to unravel the very threads of society and endless Christmas music to fully dull and disorient. But that is not what Chaos Theory and the butterfly effect are about.

Chaos in mathematics and science isn’t referring to confusion and disorder. Rather, it infers the lack of predictability of outcomes in some complex systems. As a meteorologist, Lorenz’s ah hah! moment came when he rounded one number from .506127 to .506. That tiny alteration in a single variable among more than a dozen representing atmospheric conditions in his model, dramatically changed the long-term forecast he was working on. From this revelation came his determination of the butterfly effect; small changes in initial conditions can lead to radically different and unpredictable results in the future—mathematical chaos.

Hence, the flap of a butterfly’s wings, a miniscule perturbation in the atmosphere, might be the small change necessary at the beginning of a very long and convoluted chain of events that leads to the formation of a tornado somewhere else. Had the butterfly been still, the chain might have set a very different trajectory. The butterfly didn’t cause or power the tornado, but its influence, at the very beginning of the sequence altered the course of history.

It is delightful to ponder on the possibilities of chaos, what might happen if a situation or event had been just slightly different. It has been a popular theme with Hollywood since the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was first shown in 1946. Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, gets the chance to see that his seemingly insignificant life was the flap of wings that set off a long and complex chain of events touching lives in every direction.

In a mathematical and not a holiday sense, human lives are very complex and thus very chaotic—giving us the opportunity to capitalize on the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect shows us that even the small things matter in life.  Seemingly trivial decisions now can make a big difference in the future. Contrary to the popular belief that we shouldn’t, “sweat the small stuff”, that small stuff; the kind word, a helping hand, even just a smile, may be what matters most. No one can predict where the chain of events will lead from one random act of kindness and you may just change the future. That makes chaos something to be grateful for.


Can the flap of a butterfly’s wings be the tiny change that leads to a tornado? Chaos theory and the butterfly effect tell us that it is possible but completely unpredictable. The same is true for random acts of kindness.