Chaos Theory: the butterfly effect; a ghostly experience

We will explain to you the nature of birds, the birth of the gods,

The genealogy of the rivers, the origin of Erebus and Chaos…

In the beginning there existed only Chaos…

(Aristophanes, Chorus, to you men down there)

It is time to take a closer look at Chaos Theory itself and to add substance to my early articles.  And we begin with the butterfly metaphor.

Modern Literature

Ian Stewart in Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, described the butterfly effect this way: “The flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen, does.”

James Gleick who made chaos a bestseller topic in Chaos, Making a New Science, began an article he wrote in 2008 this way: “Can a butterfly stirring the air in Beijing today transform storms in New York next month?”

The website “” credited the meteorologist Edward Lorenz with the first use of the metaphor.   “The butterfly effect , first described by Lorenz at the December 1972 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., vividly illustrates the essential idea of chaos theory. In a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences, Lorenz had quoted an unnamed meteorologist’s assertion that, if chaos theory were true, a single flap of a single seagull’s wings would be enough to change the course of all future weather systems on the earth.”

Arthur Fisher, writing in MOSAIC, Jan-Feb 1985, in an article “Chaos: The Ultimate Asymmetry,” informed us differently about the genesis of the butterfly as a metaphor.  His attribution was to Ray Bradbury who in “A Sound of Thunder,” a short story first published in Collier’s in 1952, described time travelers going back 60 million years.  They were admonished to “stay on the path.”  One traveler stepped off the path and “inadvertently tramples a butterfly.”  When the travelers return to the year 2055 the “world is unutterably and irrevocably altered.”

The essential point in modern literature is that initial conditions define the future and that those initial conditions cannot be predicted.  However, the Chinese long ago extended the notion of initial conditions to be a vision of cosmology and the human condition.

Early Taoism

N. J. Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (hun-tun,) Berkeley, 1983, addressed an earlier genesis for the butterfly metaphor in chaos.  “The “meaning” of hun-tun as the mythological and metaphysical principle of chaos embraces…the fundamental question of the meaning of meaning.”  “Chaos…is not ultimately a negative concept but rather a vision concerning the true order of cosmic and human life.”  “As the true meaning of the inner life-order of nature and man, hun-tun is a condition that is not outside…[the] ‘Butterfly Way’ of the universe.  The Chinese word and symbol for ‘butterfly’  (hu)…connotes…the mythological story of that gloriously free creature of air, pollen and nectar…that issues forth from the great ‘transformation of things’…”

Girardot further elaborated in a whimsical reference to Lewis Carroll.    “…a hun-tun myth of primordial chaos was certainly present in China…and is a key technical term in all of the early texts.  The word “hun-tun” in its Taoist use is, above all, an excellent example of what Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty called a “portmanteau” word—that is, a word “packed up” with several meanings.  And that leads us to 9-11.

9-11 A Day of Meanings

Glass and Mackey in From Clocks to Chaos, The Rhythms of Life, provide the following explanation useful to our understanding of the chaos of 9-11 as described differently by eye witnesses, participants, researchers, writers and historians.  All use the word chaos; none define it.

“Although ‘chaos’ is often used as a popular synonym for noise, it has developed a technical meaning that is quite different.  Technically, chaos refers to randomness or irregularity that arises in a deterministic system…An important aspect of chaos is that there is a sensitive dependence of the dynamics to the initial conditions.”

The National Airspace System (NAS) was attacked on September 11, 2001.  The NAS was, and is, a deterministic system, operated by the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Air Traffic Control System Command Center (Herndon Center).  The system is calibrated to guide thousands of commercial, private, and military aircraft through the nation’s skies from takeoff to landing as determined by flight plans entered into the system.

The NAS is subject to randomness or irregularity on a frequent basis due primarily to weather, the flap of a butterfly’s wings, but also to any other irregularity that may arise, to include airplanes out of communication (NORDO), not transponding the right code, or off course.  The NAS knew how to manage such events; one key position at Herndon Center was “Severe Weather.”

Procedures were in place to handle hijackings, something the NAS had not experienced in a decade.  Nevertheless, the old paradigm was known to all controllers, comply with hijacker demands and guide the hijacked plane safely to a demanded destination.  That might include military escort but at a distance and unknown to the cockpit.

That “sensitive dependence of the dynamics to the initial conditions” set the stage for everything that would follow.  That dependence was predicated on the understanding that a hijacking would be a singular, non-suicide event.  Mohammed Atta changed the paradigm when he announced “we have some planes.”

Chaos ensued, not in the attack but in the government’s awareness of the attack.  The higher the echelon the more chaos prevailed, to the point that the Secretary of Transportation and the National Command Authority were chasing ghosts, butterflies if you will.