On the Butterfly Effect

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Fluid dynamics is a veritable playground of chaotic systems, but that doesn’t always translate to easy explanations, as Henry Reich points out in this Minute Physics video. The common metaphor for chaos is the Butterfly Effect, an idea that a butterfly flapping its wings causes a typhoon on the other side of the world. I agree with Henry that this is a poor example of chaos, for many of the same reasons he lays out. In reality, we call a system chaotic when its outcome is so sensitive to the initial conditions that the result becomes effectively unpredictable. And there are some very simple systems that are chaotic, like a double pendulum or a three-body problem. The weather is, honestly, too complicated of a system for the metaphor to make sense, but fluid dynamics does have other, simpler examples, like mixing in porous media, bouncing droplets, or, my personal favorite, the fluid dynamical sewing machine. (Video credit: Minute Physics)

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