What Exactly Is The Butterfly Effect?

Is The Butterfly Effect a real thing? The answer might surprise you.
Christopher McFadden

Whilst Butterfly wings can be used to do some amazing things, do they really have the power to change the weather? The answer might surprise you.

Chaos is about to ensue so hold on tight.

What is the Butterfly Effect simple explanation?

One of the best ways to understand a complex idea is to make an easy-to-understand metaphor. In the case of Chaos Theory, the term "The Butterfly Effect" was created to attempt just such a thing.


The metaphor goes:

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

It isn't meant to imply that this could actually happen, just that a small event, like this, at the right time and place could, in theory, trigger a set of events that will ultimately culminate in the formation of a hurricane on the other side of the world. 

This was coined by one Edward Lorenz almost 45 years ago during the 139th meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science. It would prove to be very popular and has been embraced by popular culture ever since.

Lorenz was a meteorology professor at MIT. He developed the concept but never actually intended for it to be applied the way it has all too commonly been used.

Whilst it sounds a little ridiculous as a concept, it is not meant to be taken literally. "The Butterfly Effect" metaphor is simply meant to demonstrate that little insignificant events can lead to significant results over time.

To put it another way, small variances in initial conditions can have profound and widely divergent effects on a system. Such chaotic systems are unpredictable by their very nature.

This idea became the basis for a branch of mathematics known as Chaos Theory, which has been applied in countless scenarios since its introduction.

This branch of mathematics has come to question some fundamental laws of physics. Particularly those proposed by Sir Isaac Newton about the mechanical and predictable nature of the Universe.

Similarly, Lorenz challenged Pierre-Simon Laplace, who argued that unpredictability has no place in the universe, asserting that if we knew all the physical laws of nature, then “nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to [our] eyes.”

Lorenz was quick to point out one of the main problems we have is the imprecise nature of our measurement devices for things like physical phenomena. All we can ever hope to do, therefore, is make an educated best guess or approximation of events.

This is especially true for highly complex systems like weather patterns. Whilst theories in other fields of science, like physics, try to model nature, in real life they are complex systems.

Most things in nature tend to be the result of many interconnected, and interdependent, cause-and-effect relationships. This means they are staggeringly complex and probably impossible to ever resolve adequately in practice.

What is The Butterfly Effect for dummies?

The first thing to understand is that "The Butterfly Effect" is just a metaphor for a field of mathematics called Chaos Theory. 

Chaos Theory is, in effect, the science of surprises, the nonlinear and the unpredictable. The theory teaches anyone who learns it that we should come to expect the unexpected.

The Butterfly Effect wings
Source: Unsplash

In this sense, it stands in direct contrast with most other fields of science that tend to deal with predictable patterns to provide accurate predictions of things. 

After all, replicability and reliability of the scientific principle are one of its foundations. Fundamental things like gravity, electricity, and chemical reactions being prime examples.


Chaos Theory, in this case, asks us to throw the idea of being able to predict things with any real confidence out of the window - at least for highly complex systems. It deals with the nonlinear that are, by their very nature, impossible to predict or control with any real certainty.

It is simply too impractical to ever know every data point in a system with perfect precision. Plus we cannot go back to the very beginning of time to record and track every data point.

We simply can't know everything or even ever hope to.

In essence, we can only ever make a best guess approximation of such things. We can never be 100% correct as even small starting differences could throw the result off widely as the errors of any model, equation or algorithm, will accumulate over time.

Turbulence, weather, and even the Stock Market are such systems.

"As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” - Albert Einstein

Many natural objects also tend to show the results of the complex interactions that led to their creation. Things like landscapes, clouds, trees, and river systems exhibit something called fractal properties.

Fractals are never-ending patterns that tend to be infinitely complex that also tend to be self-similar at different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over again in a feedback loop. 

Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos. If you look closely at nature you will quickly come to see that it is a very common phenomenon.

By understanding that our ecosystems, our social systems, and our economic systems are interconnected, we can hope to avoid actions which may end up being detrimental to our long-term well-being.

What is the origin of "The Butterfly Effect"?

"The Butterfly Effect" is not a thing in and of itself. It is just a metaphor for the principle of Chaos Theory.

More technically, it is the "sensitive dependence on initial conditions".

The term is often ascribed to Edward Lorenz who wrote about it in a 1963 paper in the New York Academy of Sciences. But with a subtle difference:

"One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather  forever."

By the time of his now infamous talk at the 1972  American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. By this time the seagull had been replaced with the now iconic butterfly.

The entire principle was born out of the shock Lorenz had when trying to run some weather models using deterministic equations on a supercomputer. 

In theory, it should be fairly straight forward to input measurable factors like temperature, pressure and wind velocity and have a supercomputer do some number crunching to predict the weather in the future.

He input an initial set of data, switched the computer on, and waited for the printout.  Placing the output next to the machine, he decided to re-enter some of the data and run the program longer. 

But the results were widely different for the two. He soon realized he'd made a very minor error during input on the second run which yielded a drastically different outcome.

He had entered the initial condition 0.506 from the printout instead of entering the full precision 0.506127 value.

the butterfly effect forecasting
Source: The Weather Channel

Lorenz had an epiphany, and a whole new field of mathematics was born - Chaos Theory.

Lorenz died in 2008, and it’s clear that his enduring contribution to our understanding of complex systems was an important one.

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