Question of the Day: “What is the Butterfly Effect and why should I care?”

In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 classic short story, A Sound of Thunder, his main character travels through time to kill a dinosaur. He is cautioned. He is warned to stay on the Path. He is told that everything has been carefully laid out for his trip to kill a T-Rex millions of years before the dawn of man. Eckels, the protagonist, is the stereotypical trophy hunter. A perfect mixture of vanity, stupidity and arrogance. The clerk warns him that any change in the past, no matter how slight, will change the future in immeasurable ways. He is told he must be careful. But he is not careful. He gets frightened. He steps off the path onto the soft muddy landscape below. It is not until the last moments of the story where the reader is shown that a small broken butterfly brought back through time on the bottom of his shoe has changed the present. A sound of thunder roars as the clerk kills Eckels for his misjudgment. It is one of my favorite short stories, and I just recently taught it to my ninth graders. Our class discussion is what leads me to today’s question: “What is the Butterfly Effect and why should I care?”

It is derived from the metaphorical example of a tornado being influenced by minor perturbations, like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly. It is also the delicate balance of current conditions and the effect one small infinitesimal change can have on our linear ideas of time.

What effects do my wings have on time? If Bradbury is correct, and every small movement can have far reaching consequences on events taking place millions of years in the future, what will my reach be?

I stare at the masked faces as they peer at the screens in front of them. They are clicking and slightly moving one hand over the mouse pad. Their shoulders are slightly hunched. I watch exactly what they are doing through my own screen. Each square representing each student. Each screen reflecting their every movement. The flickers of the changing events flashing again and again. My eyes scan for any screen that does not move. A student raises his hand in the Meet.

“I’m confused,” his voice echoes through the speaker next to my ear.

“What’s up, Michael,” I answer. I am getting so good at telling their voices.

“So the Butterfly Effect is what exactly? I don’t understand.”

“Michael, do you believe your actions matter?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“Ray Bradbury seems to believe that all actions have consequences. Do you agree?”

“Uh, I guess,” he answers.

“Well, think about it,” I said. “If I take my stapler and throw it in the trash, do you think this action can ripple through time?”

He’s quiet. There is nothing for him to say, but students in my room look up.

“What do you think, Payge?” I took my stapler and I threw it in the trash can. She jumped slightly and laughed. “Did I just change an event that will not take place for a 10 million years?”

“No,” she shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

And I don’t really think so either.

I am not even sure anything I do is impacting much anymore. I only feel like I am holding students slightly above the waterline.

I am dog paddling underneath them. I see one start to slip under, so I swim over to him and help him reach the surface for a few moments. I must let go though so I can keep myself afloat for a few minutes. We are treading water, but I don’t know when reinforcements are coming.

The light from their screens flicker in front of my eyes again and again.

One screen has been idle for the ten minutes I spent trying to get my students to understand the impact of thin, membraned wings on the space-time continuum. I move over to the chat.

I write: “Caitlyn, Everything okay?”

Love and Light, butterflies.

Photo by Chris F on