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A bat, a butterfly and chaos

May, 2020

A bat, a butterfly and chaos

A classic example of a human exemplifying its ape counterpart.

Chaos (n): the inherent unpredictability in the behaviour of a complex natural system. - Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Chaos theory, butterfly effect and mathematics in general are ways in which we, humans, have tried to conform the unknown, the vast complexities in the world into symbols and signs that we can understand, or at least the education system wants us to understand.

Quantifying things is something that we do constantly in order to feel that we are in control of the situation, in control of the outcome and thereby, are on top everything. While mathematics is way vaster than what an average Joe makes out of it, so is the universe to what mathematicians and astrophysicists and physicists make of it in general. No doubt that we have come light years ahead from where we were a couple of centuries ago, yet it is important to understand we still lack knowledge, power and resources to control the universe. The current Corona Pandemic is an absolute chair-in-the-face example of how smart/intelligent and dumb/bozos we, humans; collectively, are.

To give context to the title, A bat, A butterfly and Chaos, let’s talk about three things – Chaos and chaos effect, the butterfly effect and Corona Virus. Unless you’ve been living under a rock with Patrick, you obviously know about the former. Coming to the other two, chaos is generally defined as ‘a lack of order and presence of confusion and the general lack of predictability of behaviour’. The word emerged in 15th century, from the word ‘khaos’, which in Greek means ‘void’. A phrase commonly used in AA meetings and philosophy classes alike is ‘order out of chaos’. While in my opinion, chaos is just another form of an order because of the presence of a certain predictability of unpredictability and thereby chaos fitting the definition of order well, it remains a debate for another day.

For perspective, the Chaos Theory is a noble expedition of the humankind to once again tame the vastness of the universe into sets of equations and symbols and theories. Looking up the ‘Chaos Effect’ on google renders the Wikipedia URL which states – “Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos—states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.”

Chaos Theory is a delicious contradiction - a science of predicting the behaviour of “inherently unpredictable” systems. It is a mathematical toolkit that allows us to extract beautifully ordered structures from a sea of chaos - a window into the complex workings of such diverse natural systems as the beating of the human heart and the trajectories of asteroids. And as for the butterfly effect, it is subset of the chaos effect that states the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. The most classic example of the same is ‘Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ Although a butterfly flapping its wings has remained constant in the expression of this concept, the location of the butterfly, the consequences, and the location of the consequences have varied widely.

The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in another location. The butterfly does not power or directly create the tornado, but the term is intended to imply that the flap of the butterfly's wings can cause the tornado.

While how the pandemic actually broke out and the involvement of the PRC to become the world’s superpower remains the biggest conspiracy theory today, let us work with the basic preliminary story that broke initially. In the wet animal market in Wuhan, a person ate a bat. After eating the bat, he contracted flu like symptoms and so did the people he came in contact with. Within a week, most of the people with the aforementioned symptoms developed pneumonia and passed away soon after. This new viral infection was similar to the SARS and MERS epidemics and hence led to a toilet paper shortage in the US. Wait, what? Something does not add up, right? Well, according to the Butterfly effect, and thereby the Chaos Theory, it does. The flapping of the wings in this case becomes the eating of the bat (or for a more elementary analysis, the catching of the bat or for an even more primary event-cause relationship, the fertilisation of the embryo of that particular bat) and the typhoon is the current pandemic we face. While the underlying domino effect has been explained by experts in a chronological manner, from the sudden dalgona coffee craze on social media crashing of the financial market to the shortage of toilet paper, one thing everyone fails to deny is the irrational and ape-like manner in which a big chunk of the humankind reacted. From hoarding groceries as soon as the lockdown was imposed to the Texas protests, it just doesn’t make sense. Well, that is what the chaos theory predicts and also fails to predict.

Acting irrationally and not caring about the bigger picture is something we have perfected. Not handling the pandemic well is something that all models predicted and failed to predict at the same time. A sensible person would weigh in the pros and cons of whether to eat home cooked meal (which is in no way inferior to any other meal, if not superior) or to order food online versus the chances of contracting a disease that the world is fighting. They would settle down on the former, right? Well, a sensible person looking at the bigger picture would but a lot of families in the southern parts of the Indian capital failed to do so and contracted the virus from the delivery person. Hence, acting erratically. Humans – 0, Corona virus & Capitalism – 1.

While we have unearthed how humans are majorly erratic, we have new insights to fight any future situations in a better manner. From what seems like a series of chain effects, chaos theory has been put into effect. While we can only hope for things to get better, taking precautions is the least we can do and, obviously, not act erratically by protesting against the lockdown and/or by drinking rubbing alcohol.

  • Written By Dhairya Jain

Dhairya is an intern at the firm since 2019. In his own words - "A cold brew is the way to my heart". You might spot him around town, in a coffee shop with a BBC and a laptop!