They say if you don’t like the weather in North Carolina, just wait five minutes. Of course, the exception is the one time you leave your umbrella at home while you go golfing, it will surely rain all day, without warning.
This has bothered me for a long time — we’ve sent people to the moon! So why can’t we reliably and accurately predict things like what the weather is going to be a mere two weeks from today?
The problem is, not only does it require a huge amount of data just to model the Earth’s weather at any given time, but the atmosphere is what’s called (and this is the technical term) a chaotic system. One characteristic of systems, like the weather, that exhibit chaos is that seemingly insignificantly tiny events now can have dramatic consequences later.
Ashton Kutcher fans will recognize this idea as the so-called “butterfly effect,” a metaphor for chaos which essentially says a butterfly flapping its wings in North America can eventually cause a hurricane in Japan. It may sound like a ridiculous exaggeration, but amazingly, it’s not far from reality at all, according to meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz.
Chaotic systems aren’t just the plagues and playthings of scientists either; they’re everywhere. Think back to any event in your life and ask yourself, “What would have happened if…” and really take that to its logical conclusion. Certainly things could be very different for you now. You might be better off, but what if you missed out on something truly special?
Next time you have an opportunity to seize such an event, do so — it doesn’t take much. Next time a stranger makes small talk with you while you’re awkwardly waiting for the same bus, strike up a genuine conversation. They might eventually become a lifelong friend. Of course, on the flip side, the seemingly trivial act of hitting the snooze button just one more time could trigger a sequence of events which causes you to miss half of a final exam. In both cases, it’s impossible to predict the long-term outcome of such little actions. It could be nothing. It could change the world.
This very unpredictability is why scientists tend to avoid working with chaotic systems like the weather unless it’s their explicit research interest — they’re just brain-meltingly complex. A detailed, accurate analysis of a highly chaotic system (like the Earth’s weather, for example) takes a lifetime of effort at best and is utterly impossible at worst.
After Isaac Newton proposed his theory of optics, the poet John Keats famously complained Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it. We’ve come a long way since then. Scientists today use million-dollar equipment to measure the masses of subatomic particles and see galaxies that are half a universe away.
However, we’re not even close to being able to fully describe such ordinary sights as the wild tossing and turning of a falling leaf.