Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Butterfly Effect

Butterfly Wing Tray, Brazil c.1920
In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. For example, the presence or absence of a butterfly flapping its wings could lead to creation or absence of a hurricane.

~ Wikipedia definition
When I first spied it, lying among the plastic trinkets and cheap Chinese ceramics, I thought it to be just another thrift store castoff- a printed tin coffee tray, possibly from a set made as a housewarming present in the 1950's. Picking it up, and looking closer, I realized that this was a genuine Brazilian Butterfly Wing Tray from the early part of the 20th century. Made of tropical woods (a little worse for wear) with an intricate pattern of butterfly wings under glass. The pattern was still perfect and the colors remained vivid. Hundreds of wings and many hours of labor went into its construction, I bought it for 99 cents! They are fairly common on eBay and in antique shops, the nicer ones sell for a couple of hundred dollars.

How many hurricanes were spawned by the beating of these gossamer wings? Or were prevented by the taking of these specimens? I suspect that it is all a wash, the Amazon basin is probably still home to billions of butterflies, and the "Butterfly Effect" is really more a rhetorical device than an actual scientific principle. Still, these insects retain power to inspire wonder and awe. An iridescent mandala, a focus for contemplation, and a reminder of the higher order present in even the most humble of creatures.

By Professor Batty


Blogger oroboros said...

Very nice post, Prof. I've got some butterfly displays too. The best (most satisfying to my sensibilities) are done by an artist who avers they are from cultured insects who are allowed to live out their natural lives before the harvesting of their jewel-like beauty.

Re: butterfly effect, yes, the notion is rhetorical device, but the idea is that everything is connected. The hurricane is caused by the butterfly's wing-stroke...along with everything else being/doing what it is. It is the mind that singles out a distinctive cause: an evolutionary development for just that purpose...but omnitaneity rules!

Blogger Professor Batty said...

Iridescence doesn't fade- a permanent rainbow!

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