My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Butterfly Effect

It’s a fun topic today, one suggested by Jacob Siehler, who I think is one of the people I met through Mathstodon. Mathstodon is a mathematics-themed instance of Mastodon, an open-source microblogging system. You can read its public messages here.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Butterfly Effect.

I take the short walk from my home to the Red Cedar River, and I pour a cup of water in. What happens next? To the water, anyway. Me, I think about walking all the way back home with this empty cup.

Let me have some simplifying assumptions. Pretend the cup of water remains somehow identifiable. That it doesn’t evaporate or dissolve into the riverbed. That it isn’t scooped up by a city or factory, drunk by an animal, or absorbed into a plant’s roots. That it doesn’t meet any interesting ions that turn it into other chemicals. It just goes as the river flows dictate. The Red Cedar River merges into the Grand River. This then moves west, emptying into Lake Michigan. Water from that eventually passes the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Huron. Through the St Clair River it goes to Lake Saint Clair, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, the Niagara River, the Niagara Falls, and Lake Ontario. Then into the Saint Lawrence River, then the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, before joining finally the North Atlantic.

Photograph of a small, tree-lined riverbed from a wooden bridge over it.
To the right: East Lansing and the Michigan State University campus. To the left, in a sense: the Atlantic Ocean.

If I pour in a second cup of water, somewhere else on the Red Cedar River, it has a similar journey. The details are different, but the course does not change. Grand River to Lake Michigan to three more Great Lakes to the Saint Lawrence to the North Atlantic Ocean. If I wish to know when my water passes the Mackinac Bridge I have a difficult problem. If I just wish to know what its future is, the problem is easy.

So now you understand dynamical systems. There’s some details to learn before you get a job, yes. But this is a perspective that explains what people in the field do, and why that. Dynamical systems are, largely, physics problems. They are about collections of things that interact according to some known potential energy. They may interact with each other. They may interact with the environment. We expect that where these things are changes in time. These changes are determined by the potential energies; there’s nothing random in it. Start a system from the same point twice and it will do the exact same thing twice.

We can describe the system as a set of coordinates. For a normal physics system the coordinates are the positions and momentums of everything that can move. If the potential energy’s rule changes with time, we probably have to include the time and the energy of the system as more coordinates. This collection of coordinates, describing the system at any moment, is a point. The point is somewhere inside phase space, which is an abstract idea, yes. But the geometry we know from the space we walk around in tells us things about phase space, too.

Imagine tracking my cup of water through its journey in the Red Cedar River. It draws out a thread, running from somewhere near my house into the Grand River and Lake Michigan and on. This great thin thread that I finally lose interest in when it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Dynamical systems drops in phase space act much the same. As the system changes in time, the coordinates of its parts change, or we expect them to. So “the point representing the system” moves. Where it moves depends on the potentials around it, the same way my cup of water moves according to the flow around it. “The point representing the system” traces out a thread, called a trajectory. The whole history of the system is somewhere on that thread.

Harvey, sulking: 'What a horrible year! How did it come to this?' Penny: 'I blame chaos theory.' Harvey: 'If it's chaos theory, I know EXACTLY who to blame! Some stupid butterfly flapped its wings and here we are.'
Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 21st of June, 2020. There were at least two “chaos theory”/“butterfly effect” comic strips in my feed just last week, and I wasn’t even looking. You can find comics essays where I talk about Adult Children at this link, and comic strips in general here.

Phase space, like a map, has regions. For my cup of water there’s a region that represents “is in Lake Michigan”. There’s another that represents “is going over Niagara Falls”. There’s one that represents “is stuck in Sandusky Bay a while”. When we study dynamical systems we are often interested in what these regions are, and what the boundaries between them are. Then a glance at where the point representing a system is tells us what it is doing. If the system represents a satellite orbiting a planet, we can tell whether it’s in a stable orbit, about to crash into a moon, or about to escape to interplanetary space. If the system represents weather, we can say it’s calm or stormy. If the system is a rigid pendulum — a favorite system to study, because we can draw its phase space on the blackboard — we can say whether the pendulum rocks back and forth or spins wildly.

Come back to my second cup of water, the one with a different history. It has a different thread from the first. So, too, a dynamical system started from a different point traces out a different trajectory. To find a trajectory is, normally, to solve differential equations. This is often useful to do. But from the dynamical systems perspective we’re usually interested in other issues.

For example: when I pour my cup of water in, does it stay together? The cup of water started all quite close together. But the different drops of water inside the cup? They’ve all had their own slightly different trajectories. So if I went with a bucket, one second later, trying to scoop it all up, likely I’d succeed. A minute later? … Possibly. An hour later? A day later?

By then I can’t gather it back up, practically speaking, because the water’s gotten all spread out across the Grand River. Possibly Lake Michigan. If I knew the flow of the river perfectly and knew well enough where I dropped the water in? I could predict where each goes, and catch each molecule of water right before it falls over Niagara. This is tedious but, after all, if you start from different spots — as the first and the last drop of my cup do — you expect to, eventually, go different places. They all end up in the North Atlantic anyway.

Photograph of Niagara Falls, showing the American Falls and the Bridal Veil, with a faint rainbow visible to the left of image and a boat sailing to the right.
Me, screaming to the pilot of the boat at center-right: “There’s my water drop! No, to the left! The left — your other left!”

Except … well, there is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. It connects the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River. The result is that some of Lake Michigan drains to the Ohio River, and from there the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. There are also some canals in Ohio which connect Lake Erie to the Ohio River. I don’t know offhand of ones in Indiana or Wisconsin bringing Great Lakes water to the Mississippi. I assume there are, though.

Then, too, there is the Erie Canal, and the other canals of the New York State Canal System. These link the Niagara River and Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to the Hudson River. The Pennsylvania Canal System, too, links Lake Erie to the Delaware River. The Delaware and the Hudson may bring my water to the mid-Atlantic. I don’t know the canal systems of Ontario well enough to say whether some water goes to Hudson Bay; I’d grant that’s possible, though.

Think of my poor cups of water, now. I had been sure their fate was the North Atlantic. But if they happen to be in the right spot? They visit my old home off the Jersey Shore. Or they flow through Louisiana and warmer weather. What is their fate?

I will have butterflies in here soon.

Imagine two adjacent drops of water, one about to be pulled into the Chicago River and one with Lake Huron in its future. There is almost no difference in their current states. Their destinies are wildly separate, though. It’s surprising that so small a difference matters. Thinking through the surprise, it’s fair that this can happen, even for a deterministic system. It happens that there is a border, separating those bound for the Gulf and those for the North Atlantic, between these drops.

But how did those water drops get there? Where were they an hour before? … Somewhere else, yes. But still, on opposite sides of the border between “Gulf of Mexico water” and “North Atlantic water”. A day before, the drops were somewhere else yet, and the border was still between them. This separation goes back to, even, if the two drops came from my cup of water. Within the Red Cedar River is a border between a destiny of flowing past Quebec and of flowing past Saint Louis. And between flowing past Quebec and flowing past Syracuse. Between Syracuse and Philadelphia.

How far apart are those borders in the Red Cedar River? If you’ll go along with my assumptions, smaller than my cup of water. Not that I have the cup in a special location. The borders between all these fates are, probably, a complicated spaghetti-tangle. Anywhere along the river would be as fortunate. But what happens if the borders are separated by a space smaller than a drop? Well, a “drop” is a vague size. What if the borders are separated by a width smaller than a water molecule? There’s surely no subtleties in defining the “size” of a molecule.

That these borders are so close does not make the system random. It is still deterministic. Put a drop of water on this side of the border and it will go to this fate. But how do we know which side of the line the drop is on? If I toss this new cup out to the left rather than the right, does that matter? If my pinky twitches during the toss? If I am breathing in rather than out? What if a change too small to measure puts the drop on the other side?

And here we have the butterfly effect. It is about how a difference too small to observe has an effect too large to ignore. It is not about a system being random. It is about how we cannot know the system well enough for its predictability to tell us anything.

The term comes from the modern study of chaotic systems. One of the first topics in which the chaos was noticed, numerically, was weather simulations. The difference between a number’s representation in the computer’s memory and its rounded-off printout was noticeable. Edward Lorenz posed it aptly in 1963, saying that “one flap of a sea gull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever”. Over the next few years this changed to a butterfly. In 1972 Philip Merrilees titled a talk Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? My impression is that these days the butterflies may be anywhere, and they alter hurricanes.

Comic strip Chaos Butterfly Man: 'Bitten by a radioactive chaos butterfly, Mike Mason gained the powers of a chaos butterfly!' [ Outside a bank ] Mason flaps his arm at an escaping robber. Robber: 'Ha-ha! What harm can THAT do me?' [ Nine days later ] Robber: 'Where did this thunderstorm finally come fr ... YOW!' (He's struck by lightning.)
RubenBolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 23rd of May, 2020. Ruben Bolling uses Chaos Butterfly a good bit in both Super-Fun-Pak Comix and in the main strip, Tom the Dancing Bug. I have fewer essays exploring these Chaos Butterfly strips than you might imagine from that because I ran out of different things to say about the joke. Bolling’s is a great strip, though, and I recommend you consider it.

That we settle on butterflies as agents of chaos we can likely credit to their image. They seem to be innocent things so slight they barely exist. Hummingbirds probably move with too much obvious determination to fit the role. The Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing would realistically be almost as nothing as a butterfly. But he has the power of myth to make him seem mightier than the storms. There are other happy accidents supporting butterflies, though. Edward Lorenz’s 1960s weather model makes trajectories that, plotted, create two great ellipsoids. The figures look like butterflies, all different but part of the same family. And there is Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, A Sound Of Thunder. If you don’t remember 7th grade English class, in the story time-travelling idiots change history, putting a fascist with terrible spelling in charge of a dystopian world, by stepping on a butterfly.

The butterfly then is metonymy for all the things too small to notice. Butterflies, sea gulls, turning the ceiling fan on in the wrong direction, prying open the living room window so there’s now a cross-breeze. They can matter, we learn.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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