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© 2014-2018 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved


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On Chaos, Choice, and Butterflies

September 11, 2014

It is raining outside the big glass panes of our tiny loft. I am grateful that my tea is warm and I am dry. Welcome to the incredible now. It will never be 9 am on the 11th of September 2014 again. We will never be here again. The fragile moment is gone, forever engraved in history as ‘a rainy 9 am on the 11th of September 2014 in Saint Louis, Missouri.’



Thirteen years ago today someone crashed a plane into a very tall building. At 9:03 am, the actions of one man instantly resulted in the death of the 65 passengers on board a Boeing 767 and that of hundreds of other people in the World Trade Center’s South Tower. The repercussions of that one act ripple on to this day.


On the same day in 1297, during the First War of Scottish Independence, William Wallace and his men defeated the English troops in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The English lost about 6,000 men, the Scottish casualties are unknown. 717 years later the struggle is still on, and in precisely one week a referendum will determine whether Scotland finally does get its independence.


Again on the 11th of September 1609, an English explorer called Henry Hudson discovered a tiny island as his ship was cruising up a river on its way to Albany. The river was named ‘Hudson’ after him; he had discovered Manhattan. Today that island is one of the most famous and densely populated in the world.


It was a very different 9 am on the 11th of September for three very different men.


It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.

Title card of the movie: The Butterfly Effect


We live in a world of chaos, where nothing is entirely predictable and no single instant is replicable. You can never roll dice the same way twice, you can never watch the same sunrise, because ‘the slightest change in initial conditions can lead to totally different results as time progresses.’ We go through our life once, and of the infinite possible combinations of every moment in a day, this is the version we get.


Edward Lorenz was a mathematician and meteorologist at MIT who built a mathematical model of the weather system. His goal was to transform weather predictions from intuitive guesswork into a scientific computation. The model consisted of a set of 12 differential equations that represented changes in temperature, pressure, wind velocity, etc.


In 1961, while Lorenz was using his model to rerun a weather prediction, he entered 0.506 instead of 0.506127 into the sequence. Nothing else was different, but this infinitely tiny numerical deviation in the initial conditions resulted in a completely different weather scenario. He had discovered chaos theory, according to which ‘one flap of a sea gull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.’



Our lives are determined by the weather, government policies, corporate decisions in multinational industries, food and safety regulations, traffic lights, bus schedules, the purchase of the last chocolate croissant by the person ahead of us in line. We give ourselves the illusion of control by hiring consultants, analysts, and scientists to make predictions, draw out expectancy graphs and derive estimates. And yet the migration of a few birds in New York could cause a storm in China.


But in this chaos, our choices take on cataclysmic proportions as well. The cosmetics on your face, the chocolate you eat, the diamond on your ring, the fuel in your car, the president you vote for. Everything is a choice, and the consequences are groundbreaking. The world we live in is quite mad, but perhaps we are more powerful than we think.


A point of divergence is a term used in discussions on counterfactual history to describe a specific event in time with two very different possible outcomes. Like the Battle of Waterloo; Napoleon could have won it or lost it, and either outcome would have radically changed the course of history.


Our lives are full of points of divergence, but I often think of the 14th of April 2012. Mon chéri, you could have chosen the empty seat next to me, or the one far across the table from me. You sat next to me, and in that one second it takes a butterfly to flutter its wings, everything changed.


It is still too soon to know how the world will remember today, or us. There is a butterfly house in the park across the street. If it stops raining, I think I will go for a walk.



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