Is The ‘Butterfly Effect’ A Real Thing?
What is the butterfly effect?
The world does not behave in a neat, ordered way. If it did, identical events would always produce the same patterns of knock-on effects, and the future would be entirely predictable, or deterministic. Chaos theory claims that the opposite: total randomness is not our situation either. We exist somewhere in the middle, in a world that often appears random but in fact obeys rules and patterns.
Patterns within chaos are hidden because they are highly sensitive to tiny changes, which means similar but not identical situations can produce wildly different outcomes. Another way of putting it is that in a chaotic world, effects can be totally out of proportion to their causes, like the metaphor of a flap of butterfly wings causing a tornado on the other side of the world. On the tornado side of the world, the storm would seem random, because the connection between the butterfly-flap and the tornado is too complex to be apparent. While this butterfly effect is the classic poetic metaphor illustrating chaos theory.
What is ‘Chaos Theory’?
Chaos theory says that a tiny, insignificant event or circumstance can have outsized influence in shaping the way a large, complex system evolves into the future. Many people are familiar with this so-called butterfly effect, an idea often traced to science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder.” In that tale, a man who has time-traveled into the deep past to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex inadvertently crushes a butterfly under his foot. When he returns to the present, he discovers that this seemingly trivial act altered the course of history—and not in a good way.
In the early 1970s, meteorologist and mathematician Edward Norton Lorenz articulated the butterfly effect in science and launched the field of chaos theory. In plain language, this version of the effect says that initial conditions strongly influence the evolution of highly complex systems. In Lorenz’s metaphor, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could ultimately lead a tornado in Texas that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. By implication, if you could go back and alter the past even slightly, a different future would evolve within the system. The future containing your present would vanish.
The butterfly effect is well accepted in our everyday world, where classical physics describes systems above the atomic scale. But in the submicroscopic world where quantum mechanics reigns, different—and very strange—rules apply.
Does the butterfly effect still hold true?
Is The ‘Butterfly Effect’ A Real Thing?
In a new paper, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory show that time can be reversed in a quantum system to recover scrambled information without it spiralling into chaos.
New research in quantum physics from Los Alamos National Laboratory has shown that the the so-called butterfly effect can be overcome in the quantum realm in order to “unscramble” lost information by essentially reversing time.
In a paper published in July, researchers Bin Yan and Nikolai Sinitsyn write that a thought experiment in “unscrambling” information with time-reversing operations would be “expected to lead to the same butterfly effect as the one in the famous Ray Bradbury’s story ‘A Sound of Thunder’” In that short story, a time traveler steps on an insect in the deep past and returns to find the modern world completely altered, giving rise to the idea we refer to as the butterfly effect.
“In contrast,” they wrote, “our result shows that by the end of a similar protocol the local information is essentially restored.”
“The primary focus of this work is not ‘time travel’—physicists do not have an answer yet to tell whether it is possible and how to do time travel in the real world,” Yan clarified.
Another feature of chaos is that, even though the rules are deterministic, the future is not predictable in the long-term. Since chaos is so sensitive to small variations, there are near-infinite ways the rules could play out and we would need to know an impossible amount of detail about the present and past to map out exactly how the world will evolve.
According to Yan, the fact that the butterfly effect does not occur in quantum realms is not a surprising result, but demonstrating information unscrambling is both novel and important.
In quantum information theory, scrambling occurs when the information encoded in each quantum particle is split up and redistributed across multiple quantum particles in the same quantum system. The scrambling is not random, since information redistribution relies on quantum entanglement, which means that the states of some quantum particles are dependent on each other. Although the scrambled result is seemingly chaotic, the information can be put back together, at least in principle, using the entangled relationships.
Entanglement has never been more relevant right?
Was this what Jada Pinkett-Smith was actually talking about?
Probably not, but still…
The result of these tests, research and quantum experiments tells us that as much as we want to believe that the ‘Butterfly Effect’ is a real thing, unfortunately the numbers and statistics prove that it isn’t.
Stay safe and take care,
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