Of all the storied elements of our great folkloric misunderstanding of Chaos Theory, the Butterfly Effect has undoubtedly suffered most from popular conception. It was born innocuous, a slight allegory to explain how changes in a mathematical situation’s beginning coordinates have an unprecedented effect on its outcome, and yet the Butterfly Effect has somehow mutated into a beloved believe-it-or-not tenet of pop science. A butterfly flapping its wings on a balmy midwestern afternoon, many of us believe, can cause typhoons on the coast of Japan. The image is lovely, of course, and gives us a world that is wildly interconnected, multifarious, and dangerous. However, any mathematical concept which finishes its career as the title of an Ashton Kutcher movie should be immediately fact-checked.
Although the Butterfly Effect is mathematically, conceptually, solid as a rock, the actual dusty-winged butterfly is only an image, and nary more. The term, some say, comes from a short story about time travel penned by the wonderful Ray Bradbury, a science fiction novelist; others claim it is derived from a 1963 paper by Edward Lorenz for the New York Academy of Sciences, in which he posited, “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull’s wings could change the course of weather forever.” Would the image have so much popular appeal if it were a briny seagull beating its wing instead of the more poetic butterfly? Hardly.
This introduction is anecdotal. Mostly, I am trying to use the hackneyed Butterfly metaphor to get at the science-news events of the last few months, which, in case you’ve been hiding under a piece of Kuiper belt debris, are the equivalent of 1,000 Japanese typhoons. As Kate Becker put it in her Seed Magazine piece, “Best Week Ever,” the last few weeks have seen huge announcements in a wide swathe of scientific disciplines “with a cross-disciplinary synchronicity that belies the isolation of their fields.”
For one, astronomers — any many other well-meaning residents of the Solar System — were all aflutter about Pluto’s demotion from its long-standing planet status. Cosmologists, on the other hand, also did their part to rewrite the textbooks, and found evidence of the existence of dark matter, the stuff which makes up 96% of the Universe and, until last week, was unaccounted for. By observing the collision of galaxies in a “bullet cluster,” scientists found that most of the post-collision mass lay outside of any observable gas, a phenomenon which is, apparently, impossible to explain without the existence of dark matter. What dark matter (and its counterpart in the Standard Model, dark energy) is actually made of is still mysterious as all get-out, but this is the most compelling evidence to date that it’s actually there, and that we don’t have to rewrite Newton’s laws to explain the visible Universe. Cool!
As if Pluto’s booting and Dark Matter’s arrival weren’t enough, stem cell researchers at the biotechnology firm Advanced Cell Technology figured out a way to make a new stem cell line out of an eight-cell, i.e. pre-sentient, embryo. Important stem cell research without any of the pro-life claptrap? I’d gladly trade an icy old asteroid for that! Although it’s probably prudent not to get too excited, this development could have profound implications for the current ethical and legal dilemmas that have limited this critical work in this country. Of course, the Bush administration may yet stick to its clammy guns on the issue of human embryos in any kind of scientific research. Still, the fact that a line of stem cells can be derived from such a basic organism is pretty awe-inspring, considering how complex a human being is.
I have the creeping feeling that these kinds of announcements — enormous, discipline-altering discoveries — are only going to be hitting the news more and more often. Maybe butterflies, somewhere, are fervently batting their wings; maybe we’re just getting better at wresting Nature’s secrets from her gnarled and starry limbs. The question that matters, to me, is whether or not we’re ready to have all the answers. After all, it’s the act of seeking which has defined the sciences since their inception: the metaphor of the perpetual search for completeness, in all its progressive linearity, has come to serve as a model for how science is understood and practiced. Once we have all the planets lined up, the Universe’s components weighed and measured, and the complexity of human cells used to our medical advantage, will we be ready to open our umbrellas and await the typhoon of whatever comes next?