“I can’t recall a period of time that was as volatile, complex, ambiguous and tumultuous. As one successful executive put it, ‘If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on’.”
– Warren Bennis
In 1961, Edward Lorenz was a junior professor at MIT working on meteorology. He used a rudimentary computer called the Royal McBee to crunch algorithms which simulated weather patterns. Using the computer program, he could plug in different variables into the equation and then let the virtual weather unfold. So it was sort of a weather simulator in that each time he would run the program, there would be underlying trends and patterns but no two sequences would be identical. He was trying to recognize the patterns—to see the big picture.
One day, he decided to revisit a particular weather formula which intrigued him. He plugged in the original numbers, intending to let the program run for a longer period this time, and then went to get a cup of coffee. When he came back to the computer the virtual weather pattern unfolding was drastically different than the first time he ran the same numbers.
In fact, the result was so incredibly unlike the first result using the very same numbers that he assumed the computer must have malfunctioned. What he discovered instead was that he had accidentally abbreviated one of the input variables from .506127 to .506—an abbreviation which he thought was so small, as to be inconsequential.
Lorenz’ revelation in the power of seemingly inconsequential small actions, led him to write a paper in 1972 called, Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? This beguiling idea crept into pop culture and time travel movies and later became known as the Butterfly Effect.