This is the WASTED BLOG. For my main author website, click this link.

Awards: WASTED won the Read it or Else category in the Coventry Award and was runner-up in the North East Book Award. It is longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Manchester, Grampian, Angus, and RED Awards.


Saturday, 8 May 2010

CHAOS and BUTTERFLIES

The Butterfly Effect
Scientist Edward Lorenz was obsessed by the weather. He thought that if you could know all the factors that would effect it, you could predict the weather because each element of it must be caused by something else before it. Nothing, he thought, just happens - everything happens because of something. And if you knew the something, you could work out what would happen.

So in 1960 (I think - roughly, anyway) he created a computer simulation of the weather and, sure enough, he saw that the weather did consist of repeated patterns. Complicated, yes, but patterns nevertheless. He learnt that if a particular pattern happened, it would be followed by a predicted pattern.

Thing is, he noticed that the patterns were never exactly the same. There was a degree of unpredictability. Even when you knew all the weather conditions (because you'd put them into the computer), tiny differences at one point would create huge unpredictable differences later on. He then discovered some weirdnesses to do with tiny fractions of numbers and this led him to the conclusion that long-term weather-forecasting was impossible. However much we knew about weather, we would never be able to predict it further than a short way ahead, because the things that might affect it were so small that they could never be known.

This discovery became known as the Butterfly Effect - because it suggests that if a butterfly flaps its wings in California (for example), this can contribute unpredictably to changes in the weather in Nebraska, and in theory bring about a hurricane.

It forms the basis of chaos theory - that tiny changes or inaccuracies will multiply and multiply and produce totally unpredictable effects.

Lots of films and books have used aspects of this idea, and Wasted is now one of them! But I didn't know any of this when I began to play with the ideas. I was a philosophy student when I came across causal determinism (the idea that each event is caused by one before it), and I certainly knew no physics. Ask my old teachers if you don't believe me...

Here are some films that use the idea of the Butterfly Effect in some form:

It's a Wonderful Life - where snow falling or not falling makes a difference to whether a character is born or not, affecting the lives of thousands of people.


A Sound of Thunder  based on a short story of that name by Ray Bradbury. Read the review to see the point of all this stuff.

And then of course, there was Jurassic Park, where the mathematician character played by Jeff Goldblum is obsessed by the butterfly effect, to the extent that this is probably why most non-sciencey people like me know about it (though that film portrayed it over-simply and most of us misunderstood it...)

One of the best books I've read about Chaos theory, which includes a great explanation of Lorenz's discovery, is Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick.

Although I was useless at physics at school, for a while I did become quite obsessed by stuff to do with chaos and quantum mechanics, randomness and Brownian motion. I can't say that I ever fully understood it but I don't believe we have to understand something fully to find it fascinating and beautiful. And sometimes the meanings that we extract may not contribute to science but they feed creative ideas. So, even if I have mostly misunderstood the physics, I still stand by the thoughts that this misunderstanding led me to.

But I'm verrrrry glad I don't actually have to do the mathsy stuff that people like Edward Lorenz had to do. I'm very happy to leave that to the experts and just use my imagination to write a novel.

THE WASTED BLOG TOUR - WHERE AM I TODAY? Over with Sasha at The Sweet Bonjour. Join us there!

And don't forget to enter the Flash Fiction comp if you enjoy writing (lots of adult entries so far but VERY few school-age ones - please pass the message to any teenagers you know) and the easy Guess the Name one. And tell me your own stories of chance here.

3 comments:

catdownunder said...

I am trying to remember my physics (it was a VERY long time ago). Am I right in thinking that there was a law (Newton?)which stated, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Chaos theory would seem to dispute this. I am not sure I actually managed to learn very much physics (we cats have other things to think about)...you are to be admired over what you have managed to learn!

Laura Marcella said...

Very interesting! The Jurassic Park book explains it way better. But of course that's not entertaining enough for a film, haha.

womagwriter said...

What was that TV series on recently, which ran for five consecutive nights? (Can't remember its name and I didn't watch it all.) A wasp in a car caused a crash on the motorway, and all sorts of ramifications followed. At the very end, you saw an alternative reality, where the wasp got swatted at a service station, never got in the car, and the crash never happened.