You’ve heard of the “butterfly effect” – that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could affect the weather in New York. It’s a poetic window into chaos theory. When a complex system (the weather) depends on a long chain of cause and effect, and the dependencies are non-linear, then a small change in the initial conditions can produce a large change in the result.
Sometimes I wonder about the butterfly effect, but more often I wonder at its opposite.
From my office, I can see cattails bowing rhythmically in the summer breeze. We don’t think much about the breeze, but it is incredibly chaotic – a turbulent boil of molecules bouncing off each other and only sort of going in one direction. What made the breeze?
True to chaos theory, the causes are simple: the steady fusion of innumerable atoms in the Sun; the inexorable rotation of the Earth; land shaped by ancient, Moon-pulled tides; butterflies in China. The simplicity iterates over time and distance, confusion increasing at every step. Eventually, all predictability is lost and total chaos arrives outside my window.
The butterfly effect then goes into reverse.
The cattails, possessed of a certain shape and flexibility, absorb the chaos. They rock as calmly as cradles.
A single redwing blackbird is stirred and takes flight.
I see the bird’s epaulets and rise slightly in my chair, drawing in my breath.