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Jewish World Review
Butterfly in the sky, you make winds go twice as high
We've all heard of the butterfly effect, which says that the world is such a complex, interactive, dynamic system that a tiny butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can ultimately cause a hurricane thousands of miles away. My first thought on hearing this was "If you see that butterfly, stomp on it." But then I realized that if a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a hurricane in the Atlantic, then the slight breeze caused by the motion of your foot stepping on the butterfly might cause a tornado in Texas. So you'd have to very, very gently catch it, take it into your house and kill it there.
Or I guess you could let it go inside the house, where its flapping wings would do no more harm.
But then I thought, "If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can do all that, what is my golf swing doing to the climate? What are my windshield wipers doing to the weather in Japan? If I play a game of tennis, will it cause a flood in the Philippines?" It made my head hurt, so I had to go lie down. As I sat on the bed, I heard the swoosh of air being forced out of the mattress. If two or three years from now a heat wave hits France, they'll blame me. No, wait. They have mattresses over there, too. Maybe we cancel each other out. Or maybe all together we're causing a flood in Bangladesh. Whoops! Excuse me, I just belched. According to computer projections, that one little blast will wipe out Norway in 15 years. Sorry. My bad.
But if a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane, what does the hurricane cause? A hurricane's got to be worth a dozen butterflies. If everyone on the planet all sneezed together at exactly the same moment in the same direction, we probably couldn't cause a hurricane. It's a puzzlement.
So I called my brother, who is some kind of Ph.D. in physics. He tells me I've got it all wrong and that the butterfly effect simply means that small variations can cause large and unpredictable changes over long periods of time and chaos theory and the Coriolis effect and the heat exchange between the dark and light half of the planet and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. He lost me after Coriolis effect. But he did say that I shouldn't lose any sleep over butterflies, burping and sitting on mattresses. "That's a comfort," I said.
"Yeah, forget that. If you really want to stay up at night, you should be worrying about giant killer asteroids that will smash the Earth into a bazillion little pieces. Trust me, that'll wreck your whole day. Or the sun could go supernova and vaporize the whole planet. Talk about your global warming. It might not happen for billions of years, it might happen tomorrow, you can never tell. Or those drug-resistant superbugs could wipe out all mankind in a matter of months.
You might be one of the few who survive, but there wouldn't be any television to watch and most sporting events would be postponed. If you lived, you would hate it. Then you've got your accidental nuclear contamination, rising sea levels and all kinds of other stuff that I'd worry about before the butterfly effect."
"Gee, thanks." So the good news is, I don't feel threatened by butterflies any more. But if you see my brother … step on him.
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Jim Mullen is the author of "It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life" and "Baby's First Tattoo."
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