In a paper he presented on “Predictability” in 1972, Lorenz posed the pioneering question: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” And, thus, the butterfly effect was born.
Vincent Van Gogh once said, “Great things are not done by impulse but by a series of small things brought together.”
Edward Lorenz, perhaps the ultimate expert on the subject, would agree. Lorenz studied mathematics at Dartmouth and Harvard in the late 1930s, earned two advanced degrees in meteorology from MIT and served as the weather forecaster for the U.S. Army Air Corp from 1942–1946. It was in this role that he developed a fascination with the ability (or lack thereof) to mathematically predict the weather.
While a professor at MIT, Lorenz became the first to recognize that it is fundamentally impossible to predict long-term weather patterns with any degree of accuracy. He termed this finding “chaos theory,” which characterized the fact that non-linear systems –– systems where mathematical analysis is unable to provide general solutions –– are highly sensitive to initial conditions.
In a paper he presented on “Predictability” in 1972, Lorenz posed the pioneering question: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”
And, thus, the butterfly effect was born.
Now I could fib and tell you that I learned all this while studying for my engineering degree at Notre Dame, but the truth is that I learned it from the “Time and Punishment” episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer, sent back in time, squishes a butterfly and returns to find Ned Flanders ruling the world and doughnuts falling from the sky.
But is it real?
Laura Durham is a singer and a very successful arts administrator in Salt Lake City. She was an exceptional student, always at the top of her class. In the spring of her third-grade year, she desperately looked forward to the day of activities her teacher had planned to celebrate the spring season. But there was a catch: The class was instructed to bring in their spelling tests, signed by a parent, or they would sit out the festivities.
This would not be a problem for a student as responsible as she. Only on this day, she did forget. And, at 8 years old, Laura Durham was devastated. But as a puddle of tears formed on her desktop, an amazing thing happened: Her teacher, clearly recognizing the circumstances and the context, knelt down beside the little girl, placed both arms around her shoulders and told her she could bring the test in the next day.
“It's difficult to measure how much a single moment changes your behavior or how you see others,” Durham told me. “I can't say that it's helped me achieve accolades or high positions, but it has helped me look past making judgments based on isolated instances and assuming what is ‘fair.’ I've developed a tendency to see the big picture and what the greater good may be.”
“I'm sensitive to where people are coming from, and I try to practice charity by expecting good intentions rather than malice,” Durham said. “I try to put myself in their shoes before making snap judgments or denying them of kindness.
"It's never easy, but I think someone who has experienced grace and mercy in their life is naturally more likely to be sympathetic to that option when dealing with others. Sometimes offering mercy to someone who made a mistake has a more positive impact than punishing that person. It certainly did in my case.”
In the framework of our lives, we are offered very little chance to do something big and something dramatic over the course of a particular moment. But by starting small and focusing on the little things, the legacy we leave may very well turn out great.
So the next time my daughter asks me if I want to see a movie that conflicts with the football game, or my son asks me to go for a run when I’m tired from a long day at work, I’m going to stop and think about Vincent Van Gogh and Edward Lorenz.
And I’m especially going to think about Laura Durham and the butterfly disguised as her third-grade teacher.
And I’m going to flap my wings.