The Science of Surprises

Feb 8, 2020

If given a chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently? Would things still be the same then? Don’t we replay an incident which happened in the past thinking about how possibly different it could have been, playing with all the permutations and combinations, changing the tiniest of details so as to obtain a different consequence? So many “ifs” followed by their “thens” and we do all of this maybe because we’ve learnt that,

“As you sow, so shall you reap!”

Actions have consequences. Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? But, is it? Maybe not.

Edward Lorentz, a meteorologist, during one of his attempts to predict the weather, observed that a very tiny change in the initial conditions had an enormous impact on the outcome. The term ‘very tiny change’ is as tiny as replacing 0.506127 with 0.506. This gave birth to the Butterfly Effect which comes from the analogy where a butterfly flaps its wings in Chicago and a tornado occurs in Tokyo. The exponential growth of errors results in the inaccuracy of predictions. The advancement of science does enable us to rely on the everyday weather forecasts to a large extent. But if a picnic was ruined due to rains on a supposedly sunny day, whom can you blame? No matter how well equipped you are, the fact that the Universe is ruled by chaos, remains. 

The impact of the smallest of actions can be mind-blowing. And this, in a way reminds us how worthy we are. What may seem insignificant is probably having a significant impact on world changing phenomena that we’re unaware of. Funny as it may sound, there are ideologies based on the butterfly theory which talks about how the rejection of Hitler’s application for art school caused World War 2, how Henry Tandey’s act of kindness caused the Holocaust and many more.  

Doesn’t the term ‘deterministic chaos’ sound like an oxymoron? Chaos, as we know it, is associated with randomness and unpredictability. But we can notice that something random follows a pattern too. On the other hand, even systems which are deterministic can prove to become unpredictable with time. Very small differences in the initial conditions can cause drastically different outcomes. This behaviour is known as ‘deterministic chaos’. The concept of deterministic chaos has had a tremendous effect on the scientific theories which rule the Universe. The deterministic motion of a pendulum or a planet has been in acceptance since the time of Newton. But if it were true, performing numerous calculations would provide a clear picture of how the Universe would be in the future. There would be no room for alternatives. But, the theory of chaos, the science of surprises, clearly contradicts the predictability of these laws. 

The inevitability of chaos is fascinating. Presuming chaos had nothing to do with human lives, if everything were to happen in an orderly fashion, as planned, you would get to know the future beforehand. Might seem like a boon, but is it really? We come across small surprises in our everyday lives, like bumping into an old friend on the road, being able to finally strike a task off your ‘to-do’ list, finding that your friend got you your favorite meal, winning or even watching a nail-biting match. In the absence of unpredictability, these wouldn’t be surprises anymore and in spite of once being the reason for your happiness, they’d no longer excite us or have any effect on us at all. The same holds for the pain and grief we experience. The real challenge isn’t in trying to stay away from chaos but in finding order in it. 

Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt,

“If life were predictable, it would cease to be life, and be without flavor”.

If we were to decide if our future was determined by our past or our present, it would be something we’d never know. But what we do know is that every action, no matter how small, matter. Theories like the butterfly effect are nature’s way of showing us this. We may not necessarily see it now, but it never ceases to exist. Maybe taking a look far into the past or the future may show us the impact made by the moves that we make or the actions that we do (or that we don’t). Our worthiness can be way beyond our imaginations. So, we better watch what we do, for every speck of dust matters!

Featured image attributed to User:WikimolUser:DschwenLorenz attractor ybCC BY-SA 3.0


Karunya Venugopalan

Karunya loves music, reading, writing and travel. An ambitious but happy-go-lucky person who’d be up for a cup of coffee on a hilltop any day.