“In 1972 meteorologist Edward Lorenz theorized that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas. What small action had a larger impact than you expected? How were you affected by the consequences?”
This was an essay question on the Northwestern University application way back in 2005. (And yes, it took some serious internet savvy to find the exact question.) Luckily there were several questions I could choose between and I did not choose this one.
Last night while watching the final episodes of the second season of Breaking Bad, this concept came crashing down on me. I don’t want to spoil anything in case you haven’t watched the show yet, but it’s safe to say that a series of bad, though initially small choices end up creating a huge and devastating web of tragedy and chaos.
And the chaos theory is exactly where this question comes from. It’s called the butterfly effect, a term coined by Lorenz to signify a small change at one place in a nonlinear system creating a large difference to a later state.
I look back and (unfairly) assume there’s no way I had an understanding or perspective of what that meant applying to college as a junior in high school. Now I read it and see that my entire life – including even the decision to go to Northwestern – as well as the narrative of human history, fits in this description. Imagine the perspective of looking back 5, 10, 20 years from now. There are wings flapping and tornadoes brewing – many I’m not currently aware of and others I can neither predict nor control.