Butterfly effect in popular culture
The butterfly effect is the phenomenon whereby a minor change in circumstances can cause a large change in outcome.
In arguably the earliest illustration of the butterfly effect in a story on film, an angel in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) shows George Bailey how rewriting history so that George was never born would detrimentally affect the lives of everyone in his hometown. In a subtle butterfly effect, snow falls in one version of reality but not the other.
In the Polish film Blind Chance directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, three parallel outcomes are shown depending on how the protagonist Witek deals with the obstacles on his way to catching a train, and whether he catches it. The film was made in 1981 but only released in 1987, due to suppression by the Polish authorities.
A 1989 episode of "The Ray Bradbury Theater" adapts the story very closely. The episode is named "The Sound of Thunder" after his short story of the same name, which itself predated the "butterfly effect" phrase.
The 1998 British movie Sliding Doors (influenced by Blind Chance) runs two parallel stories of the same woman, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow). In one universe, Helen manages to catch a London Underground train home on time, and in the other she misses it. This small event influenced her life dramatically.
The French film Le Battement d'ailes du papillon (2000), translated as Happenstance in the English release, makes direct references to the butterfly effect in title, dialogue, and theme.
In 12B, a 2001 Tamil Film, Butterfly Effect is the theme of the story – missing or not missing a bus on a specific moment defines the whole of a man's subsequent life.
In many cases, minor and seemingly inconsequential actions in the past are extrapolated over time and can have radical effects on the present time of the main characters. In the movie The Butterfly Effect (2004), Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher), when reading from his adolescent journals, is able to essentially "redo" parts of his past. As he continues to do this, he realizes that even though his intentions are good, the actions he takes always have unintended consequences. Despite its title, however, this movie does not seriously explore the implications of the butterfly effect; only the lives of the principal characters seem to change from one scenario to another. The greater world around them is mostly unaffected. Furthermore, the changes made in the past of the principal character are far from minor and in that sense the title of the film is a misnomer. An element of the butterfly effect in general terms is that differences in start conditions for different scenario outcomes are virtually undetectable, and consequences are not related to cause in a directly apparent way.
On the other hand, the movie Run Lola Run (Lola rennt in German – 1998), represents the butterfly effect more clearly. Minor and almost sub-conscious actions in everyday life can be seen to have gross and widespread effects upon the future. For example, the fact that Lola bumps into someone instead of passing by may lead to a painful death after suffering paralysis. As such, seemingly inconsequential actions can be seen to have drastic long-term results.
The second film in the Back to the Future trilogy also vividly illustrates the cascading and broad effects of what seemed a minor change in the course of events: because the loathsome Biff Tannen accidentally gets his hands on a sports almanac from 2015, he is able to grow rich and corrupt Marty McFly's home town. When McFly (Michael J. Fox) returns to 1985, he finds it utterly degraded from what used to be.
In the 2000 movie Frequency, a son, John Sullivan (James Caviezel), has an opportunity to prevent the death of his father, Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), through a miracle of nature in which they were both able to communicate across time 30 years using the same ham radio, transmitting the signal via a freak occurrence of the Northern Lights. This one action, however, had several undesirable consequences, including the murder of his mother by a vicious killer known as the Nightingale who was supposed to have never been caught. In the original timeline, when the killer is lying unconscious in the hospital, he dies from a reaction of two medicines, Benazepril and Benadryl that were mistakenly administered intravenously into his system. In the alternate timeline, Frank visits his wife, a nurse named Julia, at the hospital immediately after surviving the fire in which he was supposed to die. As they are talking, she sees the wrong medication being administered to the killer. She prevents this from happening, and the killer survives to murder not only her, but six more people; all nurses. Also, this film illustrates a theoretical side effect of the butterfly effect, where John is able to remember the original future time, as well as other alternate futures that were created each time his father changed something in the past.
In the 1990 movie Havana with Robert Redford and Lena Olin, Redford even makes a direct reference to: "And a butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. I believe it. They can even calculate the odds. It just isn't likely and it takes so long." He's referring to the probability of the two of their characters ever getting together. Redford's character was a gambler in late 50's Cuba and Olin was spotted earlier in the movie looking at books on the Theory of Numbers and Probability in the apartment of Redford's character.
In another 1990 movie Mr. Destiny, James Belushi plays Larry, a man who blames all of his life's problems on the fact that he struck out during a key moment of a high school baseball game. Michael Caine plays the title role of Mr. Destiny and allows Larry to live the life he would have had if his high school at-bat resulted in a game-winning home run instead of a game-losing strike three. Larry discovers that he is no longer married to Ellen, the woman he loves, played by Linda Hamilton but is now married to the glamorous Cindy Jo, played by Rene Russo. In this case, that one baseball hit in high school made Larry rich and powerful.
In the 2005 movie A Sound of Thunder (borrowing the title from the Ray Bradbury story mentioned in the next section), an accidental killing of a butterfly literally triggers time waves that change the present bit by bit.
In the 2008 Tamil movie, Dasavatharam, the protagonist Govind (Kamal Haasan) states that the butterfly effect and chaos theory can be used to explain how a 12th-century event in South India had an adverse effect on the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
The 2009 Japanese film Fish Story directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura depicts how a mistake made by an inexperienced translator helps humankind survive more than 50 years after the original mistake itself is made.
In the 2010 film Hot Tub Time Machine, the butterfly effect is mentioned when Jacob explains that stepping on an insect in the past may, for instance, result in the internet ceasing to exist in the future.
The concept is referred to specifically – when describing how Nemo Nobody's parents met – and generally throughout the film Mr. Nobody (2009). In the plot, multiple stories are told consecutively with the differences being the result of choices made by the main character, Nemo Nobody.
In About Time the protagonist goes back a few years to his personal past, and when coming back to his home he finds that his beloved baby girl had been replaced by an unfamiliar baby boy. The protagonist's father tells him that he must never travel to a time before his children were conceived, because anything he did there might effect which of his countless sperm would fertilize the ovum, and then he would have a different child.
12 Monkeys of 1995 and inspired by it cognominal TV series of 2015 tell us about the time travel from a future post apocalyptic world into the present with the aim to prevent human race extinction. Even though the heroes claim it to be impossible to change the events that have already happened, somehow we see things change once affected in the 'past'.
The 2016 Telugu film Nannaku Prematho was completely based on the concept of butterfly effect, where the protagonist plots the whole sequence of events to trigger a mind game which leads to the bankruptcy of antagonist.
Literature and print
Charles Fort, wrote about the interconnectedness of nature and the butterfly effect before the term was coined in his books New Lands (1932) and Wild Talents (1941). In "New Lands" he makes reference to a migration of birds in New York that could cause a storm in China.
In the 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury, "A Sound of Thunder", the killing of a butterfly during the time of dinosaurs causes the future to change in subtle but meaningful ways: e.g., the spelling of English and the outcome of a political election.
The butterfly effect was invoked by fictional chaotician Ian Malcolm in both the novel Jurassic Park and subsequent film adaptation. He used it to explain the inherent instability of (among other things) an amusement park with dinosaurs as the attraction.
In Terry Pratchett's Interesting Times, the magical "Quantum Weather Butterfly", whose wings have finite area but infinite length, has the ability to manipulate weather patterns. These microclimates, which the butterfly uses to attract mates and fend off predators, play an important role in the resolution of the plot.
In the 1632 series of time-travel science fiction by Eric Flint and David Weber et al., speculation about the butterfly effect that happens when the West Virginia town of Grantville is instantaneously dropped into 1632 Germany. The speculation is that the events which drive the genetic makeup of a human are so sensitive to chance that every human born in the world changed by the "Ring of Fire" event would be genetically different from what they otherwise would have been within a very small period of time, depending on the distance from Germany, but in all cases within a year. Specifically, thousands of sperm vying for entry into an egg would be very sensitive to very small differences in position or timing that would assuredly result in a different sperm winning out, and a different person (a brother or sister, but no closer related than that) being born. The speculation centers especially on the birth of Baruch de Spinoza in Amsterdam a few months following the Ring event.
The (practical) applications are explored in Greg Egan's Permutation City. The premise is that if the details of the chaotic system can be determined with sufficient accuracy, then the butterfly effect could be used to leverage small actions into much larger desired consequences. E.g., deliberately flap the butterfly in just the place and time so as to end a drought, or prevent a hurricane from forming.
A variant is introduced in the 1993 short story "The Mosquito's Choice" by Henry Cowper, describing two alternate history timelines diverging radically due solely to a choice made by a mosquito. On a hot summer evening during the First World War, a French artillery officer is making calculations for the offensive on the German positions due to be launched the next day, while his orderly is preparing coffee. The mosquito, hovering inside the tent, needs to choose which of the sweating men – from its point of view, equally tempting sources of nourishment – it would bite. In one timeline it had bitten the officer – making him lose concentration and transpose figures in his calculations, and leading to the next day's artillery bombardment falling off target. This resulted in the history we know. In the divergent timeline the mosquito had bitten the orderly while the officer made the correct calculations – with the result that on the following day a French artillery shell came down directly on Corporal Adolf Hitler and blew him to bits. This resulted in a history where the Nazi Party remained an insignificant splinter group in Munich, while Germany underwent a restoration of the Kaiser in 1934 and won the Second World War in 1944 due to a nuclear bomb developed by Einstein and other Jewish scientists.
The Southern Victory series of novels by Harry Turtledove explores what might have happened if Robert E. Lee's Special Order 191 had not been intercepted by Union soldiers. Rather it sets off a series of events where the South wins the American Civil War and splits North America into two separate world powers.
Andrew Hussie constantly demonstrates this in his webcomic "Homestuck", in which he shows many points diverging from a single point based around certain characters who manipulate time. A perfect example of this is when the character Dave Strider travels back in time repeatedly in trying to save his friend John Egbert from dying, with subtle shifts along the way.
The webcomic Kevin and Kell refers to Bradbury in the March 10, 1998 strip, which has Coney eating a butterfly while the family is in the Stone Age. A caption reads "When they return to 1998, they'll discover that a writer named Ray Bradbury never existed".
In the videogame Second Sight, main character John Vattic is able to change the present by having flashbacks to six months earlier, where he does things differently, affecting the future; only he remembers the alternate futures.
In the Facebook game Marvel: Avengers Alliance, the hero Bishop goes back in time to kill Sin before she becomes Skadi, in order to easily win the current battle against the Worthy. However, this led to a grim future which the HYDRA teamed up with the Sentinels, leading to the extermination of the mutantkind, but this future is prevented by Cable. The same issue also lead Kang to fight an alternative version of himself.
The company behind the video game Eve Online, CCP used the Butterfly Effect in one of their advertisements.
The sports blog The Dubious Goals Committee run a feature called The Butterfly Effect, which details how sporting landscapes could have changed based on a single moment in history.
The installation El día de la langosta (The day of the locust) by Mexican artist Susana Rodríguez explores the concept of a small human action leading on to large effects, drawing on the concepts of chaos theory and the butterfly effect.
The webcomic xkcd published an interactive comic strip on April Fools' Day 2014 entitled Lorenz. The webcomic could go down dozens of different paths according to small choices made by the reader in various panels. The title text for the strip directly alluded to the butterfly effect, reading, "Every choice, no matter how small, begins a new story."
The 2015 videogame Until Dawn heavily utilizes the butterfly effect, as players choices can cause various helpful or harmful outcomes later on in the game. For example, the player may inspect a weapon in a location before putting it down, and then have the choice to pick it up and use it if they return to that location later in the game.
In Star Trek Online, one of the campaign missions in the Iconian War series, named "Butterfly", involves the player testing different scenarios in a holodeck to win the catastrophic iconian war. Each scenario is meant to reflect possible Alliance actions and their result on the war.
In Star Trek; The Next Generation, Season 3 Episode 15, "Yesterday's Enteprise," the Enterprise D encounters the Enterprise C, whose departure from what is considered a historically insignificant battle has changed all history and placed the entire Federation in jeopardy. In Season 6 Episode 15, "Tapestry," Q shows Picard the long-term, large ramifications to his life caused by one rash action in his youth. In Season 7 Episode 11, "Parallels," Worf goes through a rift in space-time and begins shifting between different personal and political realities shaped by small choices.
In The Simpsons Halloween episode, "Time and Punishment", Homer repeatedly travels back to the time of dinosaurs with a time machine (à la Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder"). Each time there, Homer's actions (involving intentional and unintentional violence) drastically alter the current universe: some of the changes include a totalitarian society with Ned Flanders as world dictator, a universe where his family is rich and classy and it rains donuts, and a seemingly normal universe with the exception of humans having long reptilian tongues.
In the Family Guy episode "Meet the Quagmires", Peter, with the help of Death, repeatedly travels back to the 80's to live up his teenage years and cancel a date with Lois. This leads to her marrying Quagmire and Peter marrying Molly Ringwald, while Chevy Chase is host of The Tonight Show, and Al Gore is president of the United States; when things seem normal again, it turns out Roger from American Dad! is living with them.
In a 2004 television episode of comedy sitcom Scrubs called "My Butterfly", the episode is shown in two parts: The first in which a butterfly lands on a woman sitting in the hospital's waiting room, and the second where time is rewound and the butterfly instead lands on the man next to her. Both halves of the episode show the noticeably (albeit sensationally) different outcomes that stem directly from the original choice of landing locations of this butterfly.
In a first-season episode of the stop-motion animation show Robot Chicken titled "Operation: Rich in Spirit" there is a sketch where a young boy tries to explain the butterfly effect to a young girl. When the young girl squishes the butterfly, it causes earthquakes in Japan. A Japanese woman retaliates, stepping on a butterfly, which causes a volcano to erupt behind the children. The boy realiates as well, ripping a butterfly in half, which causes Godzilla to terrorize Japan.
In a second season episode of CSI titled "Chaos Theory", the entire CSI team investigates a disappearance of a young woman at a local university. Forensics leads them to possible suspects, and possible suspects all have probable motives, but nothing seems to pan out. This leads the team to discuss the "Chaos Theory": when combined, many seemingly innocuous events may have a deadly outcome, and closure is not always within reach.
In a third season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled "The Wish", Cordelia, upset after catching her boyfriend Xander kissing their friend Willow, wishes "that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale" while talking to the vengeance demon Anyanka. She fulfills that wish and the world changes: now they're in an alternative reality in which Buffy has not come to Sunnydale (becoming instead the resident slayer for the Hellmouth in Cleveland) and the vampire population has multiplied and gained in power, to the point that Xander and Willow are the Master's lieutenants. Giles meets with Cordelia before she dies and manages to discern what has happened. He subsequently summons Anyanka and destroys her necklace. As a result, Anya is made mortal again and the world returns to normal.
A Malcolm in the Middle episode shows Hal and Lois arguing about which one of them will take Malcolm and Reese to bowling and which one will stay at home with Dewey. After that, the episode will show two timelines: one where Lois takes them and another one where Hal takes them. An event from the timeline where Lois goes to the bowling is shown as a flashback in a later episode, implying that timeline to be the one in canon.
The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Year of Hell" features a large starship that is capable of erasing objects of various sizes from time, often introducing other consequences into the timeline; erasing a comet could have erased various races that evolved because of particles it spread across relevant planets, while the ship's designer's decision to erase a particular race resulted in his own people never evolving a vital enzyme that protected them from a crucial disease. The original timeline is restored by causing the ship to erase itself, and therefore preventing all the erasures it had caused from ever happening.
In the series 1 episode of Doctor Who called "Father's Day", Rose Tyler goes back in time to the day her father dies and saves him from the accident that kills him creating an alternate timeline. A group of creatures known as Reapers come to repair the damage created. By the end of the episode Pete Tyler, knowing that the only way the timeline can be repaired is with his death sacrifices himself and runs out in front of the car that should have killed him. In the series 3 episode of Doctor Who called "The Shakespeare Code", Martha says that she's worried about that she can change the future of human race by stepping on the butterfly after landing in Elizabethan London (à la Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder") – which The Doctor acknowledges as " I'll tell you what then, don't.... step on any butterflies. What have butterflies ever done to you?" In the season-4 episode called "Turn Left", Donna has a parallel universe created around her where she turns right instead of left, at the request of her mother, thus taking a different job that results in her not meeting The Doctor. As a result, The Doctor dies fighting the Racnoss, and millions of people die from events The Doctor prevented in the original timeline. It is not until Rose Tyler, with the aid of UNIT and the TARDIS, sends this alternate Donna back in time to before the choice was made. Donna proceeds to jump out in front of a lorry, causing a traffic jam making it impossible for Donna's car to turn right, so she turns left, and correct time is restored.
In an episode of Frasier entitled "Sliding Frasiers", the story switches off between the possible two storylines/outcomes if Frasier was to wear a sweater vs. a suit. The title is a play on "Sliding Doors" (see above).
An episode of the third season of Heroes was entitled "The Butterfly Effect", in which the character of Peter Petrelli travels from the future to alter the timeline caused by his brother Nathan revealing the existence of humans with special abilities. His mother, Angela, who has the power of precognitive dreams, is aware of his actions, and warns him that his seemingly minor alterations to the timeline can have major consequences, alluding to Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder" to explain the butterfly effect to Peter. Later episodes also have Hiro Nakamura refer to Samuel Sullivan as 'Butterfly Man' after he convinces Hiro to go back in time and change things for the better
In the television show Primeval, the entirety of seasons 2 and 3 are the results of the butterfly effect, caused by Cutter time traveling in the first-season finale. The changes include replacing a character named Claudia Brown with a nearly identical woman named Jennifer Lewis, and causing the team to be based in a headquarters called "The ARC". Being the ones who time traveled, only Cutter and Helen were aware of these changes.
Dennis Miller touched on the issue in an episode of Dennis Miller Live, linking the flapping of a butterfly's wings, dislodging some dust, which makes a monkey sneeze, which startles a herd of gazelle into a stampede, which causes a nearby dam to break, sending increased moisture into the air, causing a powerful storm in the upper atmosphere, which causes his cell phone signal to deteriorate and drop calls (which he immediately blames on the butterflies themselves).
The CBS series Early Edition used the butterfly effect in many of its story lines, as the lead character would get the next day's newspaper before events happened and would try to change them.
In the SciFi Original Series Eureka 4th season premiere, titled "Founder's Day", five people are sent back in time, and when they return, they bring the town's founder with them, causing a change in the timeline.
In the sci-fi anime series and game, Steins;Gate, the butterfly effect is used extensively in the gameplay and plot, and is the device the main character, Okabe Rintarou, uses to save his friends from their fated deaths. It is also one of the core explanations for the series' science, along with the many-worlds interpretation.
An episode of the NBC sitcom Community entitled "Remedial Chaos Theory" revolves around the concept of various existing timelines, each set up by the character Jeff rolling a die to determine which character will pick up a delivery pizza. The episode's plot follows how each timeline differs and remains the same depending on which character is chosen to retrieve the pizza. This episode of Community has been called one of the greatest sitcom episodes ever aired.
In the season 2 finale episode of the Canadian sitcom Naturally, Sadie entitled "Sliding Closet Doors" the shirt that main protagonist chooses affects the outcome of both her love life and the last day of school before break.
French Singer Bénabar wrote a song called "l'effet papillon" ( "the Butterfly effect") referring loosely to the concept on his 2008 album Infréquentable.
The Spanish band La Oreja de van Gogh touches on the effect in their song "Mariposa".
The Australian rock band The Butterfly Effect is named for the concept.
The UK hip hop artist Lowkey has a song titled "The Butterfly Effect" featuring Adrian on his 2011 album Soundtrack to the Struggle about how a soldier's specific actions in war caused him to be disabled, mentally ill and homeless.
In the 2010 hip-hop song "Butterfly Effect" by Kinetics & One Love, rapper Kinetics ponders what he would do if he had a time machine and could change historical events or right the regrets of his past – ultimately deciding against wanting to change anything in the fear of small changes having much larger or unintended consequences in the present. The message of the song is one of accepting things the way they are over regretting or yearning for an alternate life.
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- The Butterfly Effect
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- "Rap Genius: Lyrics and Explanations for the Kinetics & One Love song "Butterfly Effect"".
- The meaning of the butterfly: Why pop culture loves the 'butterfly effect,' and gets it totally wrong, Peter Dizikes, Boston Globe, June 8, 2008