Wading in a pool of abstraction © Robert Sommers 2023

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chaos in the pale blue grass

It is kind of odd. For years people have explained Lorenz's chaos theory by talking about how the minute flapping of a butterfly's wings in Tokyo can cause a hurricane weeks later in Texas. Life took a synchronistic and ironic twist when it was announced this week that the japanese pale grass blue butterfly is now showing genetic mutations as a result of radiation effects from Fukushima.


The research was published in Scientific Reports, an open-access online journal by the Nature publication group. The butterflies, collected from several areas near the Fukushima plant, showed signs of genetic mutations, such as dented eyes, malformed legs and antennae, and stunted wings.

Experts believe that this research is significant. Butterflies are important bio-indicators and this might presage harm to human beings in the area. The butterflies were deteriorating both physically and genetically, with the share of those showing abnormalities increasing from 12 percent in the first generation to 18 percent in the second and 34 percent in the third.

Lorenz  coined the term butterfly effect for a specific event promulgated by a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. He may have poached the idea from a Ray Bradbury story first published in 1952, A Sound of Thunder.

Lorenz was using a computer to make weather predictions in 1961 when he first came up with his theory, which he published in 1963 in a study called Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow. A fellow scientist said at that time that if so, a single flap of a seagull wing could change the course of weather forever.

Lorenz needed a title for a lecture at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972, A fellow scientist, Philip Merilees wrote Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas on the board? Much more lyrical than seagulls, in any case.

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