Sometimes, the raging current of the state of the world sucks me under, and I start to think about what a terrifying, heart-breaking freakshow we’re living in these days. On those days, the world has never felt more chaotic. Recently, in an effort to soothe my roaming thoughts about that at 4 a.m., I stumbled across chaos theory.
Wrapping science around chaos, to my relatively unscientific brain, is sort of like studying surprises. It’s the science of the unpredictable, teaching us about expecting the unexpected.
I’ve always thought of chaos in terms of images – the dinosaurs running wild in the Jurassic Park movies, the January 6th riot at the Capitol, or my kids ravaging the living room when they were toddlers. In a chaotic world, you never know what to expect. Stuff is happening all the time, seemingly driven by random impulses. But, while its name implies randomness, chaos isn’t exactly random. According to science – mostly mathematics actually – it sits somewhere between random and predictable.
“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” This might sound like the type of question posed by science fiction explorers to reveal the precarity of time travel, but, in reality, it’s the title of an MIT professor’s 1972 paper presented in a Sheraton conference room to members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Meteorologist Edward Lorenz wrote the paper – which is widely known today as The Butterfly Effect. More precisely, The Butterfly Effect example explains a kind of math called chaos theory, which looks at how small changes made to a system’s initial conditions—like the extra gust of wind from a butterfly’s wings—can result in seemingly unpredictable behavior. For example, a tornado in Texas. While the concept seems a bit far-fetched, the butterfly analogy actually highlights an idea that underlies almost everything, from the motion of the planets in our solar system, to climate change — chaos.
Often, those little imperceptible details – like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings – don’t matter. But sometimes, tiny differences like this have consequences that keep compounding. They keep adding up. And that compounding is what leads to chaos. Like a tornado in Texas caused by a monarch flapping its wings in my backyard. What appears to be random behaviour at first glance, isn’t random at all. It only seems that way because these imperceptibly tiny changes are making all the difference.
It all says to me that this world is just too big and too intricate to conform to our ideas of what it should be like. Just because we invent myths and theories to explain away the chaos, we still live in a world that’s older and more complicated than we’ll ever understand. And I like that about it. So much.
I like that not everything can be predicted or explained. I want to keep believing that small differences can make all the difference. That a tiny thing in a big system can change it all. That the only simple truth is that there is nothing simple in this complex universe. That everything relates. That everything connects. I like that chaos isn’t really chaotic at all. Mostly, it’s just a series of different types of patterns which our human brains don’t yet know.
Pattern after pattern after pattern. Patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden inside of other patterns. At 4 a.m., I suddenly realize that this is why history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we can’t see. Patterns we can’t decipher. All the things we can’t understand, so we call them nonsense.
The whole thing is like a video game. In it, we’re all hurtling through space on this giant rock together in a universe that’s built to maximize our interest by having us each face, and survive, numerous challenges over a period of years. Everyone knows that the best games aren’t the ones where everything goes smoothly and winds up with a certain predictable conclusion. The best ones are those in which the outcome is always in doubt.
It’s the same with life. The geometry of life – so far at least – seems designed to keep us at the point of maximum tension between certainty and uncertainty. Between order and chaos. Every important call is a close call. Lots of days, we survive and evolve by the skin of our teeth. But we don’t want a puzzle that’s already assembled for us. The fun part – that maybe we don’t see right away – is making a life from all of the seemingly random pieces. Making a life from the beauty, and the chaos and the mess.
I’m a 4 a.m. believer in The Butterfly Effect. I think that just maybe a small positive vibration can change the entire cosmos. And that it’s true that something as small as being kind or as simple as noticing beauty – and sharing that with someone else – can change things in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
Chaos theory tells me that goodness is quantum. That when you put goodness and kindness and decency and charity and love into the world – it keeps compounding. It keeps adding up. These are some of the simplest things we can do in our lives and yet they can create endless, tiny, imperceptible ripples that infinitely change things. That bring light we may never see to the darkest corners.
I think the human spirit knows something about chaos theory. It knows that things that happen before you are born still affect you. That people who come before your time still have an impact on you. That, deep down, all of our lives intersect somewhere. Each of us affects the other. And the other affects the next. That everything that happens in every moment is an accumulation of everything that’s come before it. Every breath. Every thought. There is no innocent action. Some actions end up having the force of a tempest and their impacts cannot possibly be missed. Others are over in the blink of an eye. Passing by unnoticed.
Probably only God knows which is which.