You think it doesn’t matter? Chaos theory says it can
Thursday’s column explored the ancient African concept of ubuntu – the idea that we are all connected in some way, so compassion for another person is, at heart, an extension of self-compassion. If one person suffers, in one way or another, we all suffer too.
“I am because you are.”
Apart from the spiritual aspects of ubuntu, is there a physical one? Is it scientifically true that all living things are connected?
No, and in a way, yes. But it’s chaos.
I asked physicist Brett Green, who grew up in northern Idaho and got his Ph.D. at Penn State, if there’s evidence in physics that it’s all somehow connected. With a lot of patience for the small brain of this very interested but scientifically ill-qualified writer, his short answer was no.
“There is no invisible energy field – it’s not that each molecule interacts with the rest,” Dr. Green told me. “It’s that molecules bounce off each other, so it’s through a chain of interactions that they affect each other.”
No invisible thread connecting all life, nothing in physics to support a kumbaya theory.
The good news is that there is plenty of evidence in physics (and in life) that what we do impacts others, setting off chain reactions of potential change. In fact, Dr. Green explained how even the smallest acts or changes can cause drastic differences in the outcome of chaotic systems. With ping pong balls.
In mathematics, a system is “chaotic” if a small change in the initial conditions leads to a completely different result.
“The central idea is that we know exactly the equations that tell us how things move and interact, so in principle we should be able to predict the future with them,” he explained.
“However, in reality, there are so many interacting parts that in some cases the interactions are strong enough that a slight disturbance of one object changes the way it affects others, and then changes the way they affect the others, and so on until the whole system looks completely different from what it would have if the first object had never been disturbed.
Like ping pong balls. They arrive.
Case in point: how Dan Green first met his future wife Linda (on a highway) and how Dr. Green drove his friend to an important meeting before our interview.
“If he had gone out without his keys that morning, he would never have seen her. If she hadn’t stopped for a bite to eat, they would have missed each other,” their son said. “I wouldn’t be here. I couldn’t have met my friend at Penn State, I couldn’t have driven her, she wouldn’t become an American citizen.
This immigrant could join the ranks of others who have discovered life-saving remedies and inventions. In the chaos of what we might think of as chance lies a plethora of potential causes and effects.
In other words, it’s not useless. Every act counts; a sandwich and a smile could lead to lasting love and a family that spawns a county commissioner and a brilliant son (or two) interviewed for this little column. Who could inspire someone to study, become a scientist who takes us to the next height of transportation or solve a climate problem.
“All of these interactions mean things get complicated and small actions can have a domino effect, leading to unexpected things,” Green said.
Every choice counts. Every vote counts. Every kindness – and every hurt – ultimately creates an impact, no matter how small we perceive it to be. We may not see the end result amid the “chaos”, but it’s still there.
This is the crux of chaos theory.
To explain chaos theory, Dr. Green said to imagine a bunch of moving ping pong balls.
“If one was red and you could track its movement, its dynamics would be chaotic. Small changes to where it starts can completely change its path and where it ends a minute later. But if all the balls are one color and you zoom out, looking at the whole array of bouncing white balls, it looks the same (even though one has changed position or direction ).
“Air is a collection of molecules moving in the space between solid objects. They bounce off things and change paths. If I could follow a molecule, it would have a chaotic path – if I disturb it a little, it could drastically change its destination,” he explained.
“But in terms of the larger picture, like air temperature or wind speed, it’s going to appear the same, because the chaotic behavior is averaged out.”
Studying small changes that can lead to vastly different results is an area of mathematics called chaos theory. Add to that the butterfly effect – the way a small change grows larger over time – and we see even bigger changes. A temperature difference of just two degrees could mean a hurricane forming over the ocean, or snowing in Hayden but not Spokane.
“We’ve all had an impact on others and rarely know when or how much, but I’m grateful to have heard once. I once gave a local student encouragement – a simple conversation that I soon forgot. A few years later, his father said the conversation may have made the student’s life better. He had gone from struggling at school to chasing international dreams at 19.
This ping pong ball could have ended up somewhere very different without a small act of kindness. Chaos theory at work.
“The more you zoom out, the more likely you are to see some sort of correlation between the changes and the effect. As a scientist, I can certainly believe that.
Even in the midst of chaos, we can create purpose.
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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who wasn’t smart enough to become an astrophysicist. Email email@example.com.