Some people say that our choices define us. We make them every day. They range from the small decisions like when to set an alarm or what route you travel to work, up to life defining choices like whether you go to university or not, should you get married, and of course the most important choice – whether you have just the one more beer before heading home on a night out, of which a majority tend to do, resulting in much more than one beer.
I’ve been thinking about choices in the past few days, and how some choices can alter the direction a company, person or event takes. Over the past year I have made choices that may have altered events around me to what they are at this point in time, but equally some things may have been out of my control as a result of other people’s choices. I may or may not go into more detail about those choices later, but once again that is another potential choice for me to make.
But what it has got me thinking about is something called the Butterfly Effect. Many will have heard of it before, and there was even a film released in 2004 of the same name. The film itself is more about how the lives of a group of individuals change as a result of altering events in the main characters past, which I will talk about in due course.
The name of the effect though was coined by a man named Edward Lorenz to explain his observations of a weather model he was running, in which runs of initial condition data that was rounded in a seemingly inconsequential manner would fail to reproduce the results of runs with the unrounded initial condition data, i.e. a very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.
He managed to explain the effect in a more metaphorical example, whereby the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) could be influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. This effect can be seen in more simple systems, such as the rolling of some dice. The randomness of the outcomes of throwing dice depends on this characteristic to amplify small differences in initial conditions—the precise direction, thrust, and orientation of the throw—into significantly different dice paths and outcomes, which makes it virtually impossible to throw dice exactly the same way twice. Very sciencey you’d agree.
Now, the Butterfly effect was introduced initially to help explain a weather model, but it has naturally become linked with science fiction, most notably time travel and where a specific event pushes a timeline in one direction or another. In the film ‘The Butterfly Effect’ the main character (Evan) and his group of friends have had a troublesome upbringing, in which they’ve had to deal with child pornography, Evans mentally estranged father trying to strangle him, murder through playing with dynamite, and the burning of Evan’s dog by another in the group (Tommy). Pretty messed up you will agree.
But eventually Evan discovers he has an ability to inhabit his younger self’s mind and change how the events unfold, which results in many different outcomes in the future. These include Evan becoming a college student in a fraternity, an inmate imprisoned for murdering Tommy, and an amputee as a result from the dynamite. Towards the end of the film Evan finds that although his intentions are good in trying to rewrite his history, there are always unforeseen consequences. Eventually he realises that his attempts in the past only serve to hurt those around him and he ultimately makes the decision to travel back one more time and prevent himself from ever meeting his group of friends, thus preventing all the terrible things that happened to them but at a cost of their would be friendships.
Now this film instantly makes me think about how one decision could drastically alter the direction someone’s life could take, and if there were only two outcomes to a choice whether those two alternate lives run side by side in separate dimensions, or a multiverse theory. Theoretical Physicist and String Theorist Brain Greene has come up with nine types of parallel universe.
“Quilted – The quilted multiverse works only in an infinite universe. With an infinite amount of space, every possible event will occur an infinite number of times. However, the speed of light prevents us from being aware of these other identical areas.
Inflationary -The inflationary multiverse is composed of various pockets where inflation fields collapse and form new universes.
Brane – The brane multiverse follows from M-theory and states that each universe is a 3-dimensional brane that exists with many others. Particles are bound to their respective branes except for gravity.
Cyclic – The cyclic multiverse has multiple branes (each a universe) that collided, causing Big Bangs. The universes bounce back and pass through time, until they are pulled back together and again collide, destroying the old contents and creating them anew.
Landscape – The landscape multiverse relies on string theory’s Calabi–Yau shapes. Quantum fluctuations drop the shapes to a lower energy level, creating a pocket with a different set of laws from the surrounding space.
Quantum – The quantum multiverse creates a new universe when a diversion in events occurs, as in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Holographic -The holographic multiverse is derived from the theory that the surface area of a space can simulate the volume of the region.
Simulated – The simulated multiverse exists on complex computer systems that simulate entire universes.
Ultimate – The ultimate multiverse contains every mathematically possible universe under different laws of physics.”
Now I can’t help but think how some of the choices I have made in life have lead me to where I am today, and an obvious example stands out. I had already done a bit of science communication work for about 6 months when I was offered an opportunity to go and coach indoor hockey in the USA for 3 months from December 2012, a choice I decided to go for. So I ended up flying out to Philadelphia to get started, only to be denied entry due to an apparent incorrect visa, from which I was sent packing back to Britain. Now I won’t go into much detail, but it wasn’t exactly an experience I will look fondly upon the rest of my days.
Now as a result of not being in America I started to look for other jobs, and was asked to interview for an outreach job at the Glasgow Science Centre, only to not get the job either. However the experience of that interview proved handy when five in house positions opened up at the centre a few months later, where I managed to get the Science Communicator Role I currently fulfil today. And as a result of this role I have managed to move back to Glasgow and present science shows and workshops to thousands of people. During my time there I have also blown up hydrogen balloons, created fire tornados, lay on a bed of nails, exploded ping pong balls using liquid nitrogen, built battery powered cars, walked on running blades, fired a potato cannon, controlled a planetarium, busked at the commonwealth games and so much more. I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet many new people and even date one for a bit of time, a minor miracle in my case! I’ve also had the opportunity to win an indoor hockey national title, which potentially could lead to competing in European competition in the next few months.
But I know what you’re thinking though, that I’ve only focused on the positives, and you’d be right. During that time I’ve also lived in flats where the flatmates and I have had personality clashes, I’ve undated that one person, I’ve had to pretty much give up outdoor hockey, and I rarely get an opportunity to watch Rangers anymore (though the way they play football at the moment, that might not be such a bad thing!)
Of course there are lots more events I could list in both the positives and negatives with some as a result of my choices, and some the results of others. But what I can’t help but be curious about is what direction could my life have taken if I hadn’t decided to go to the USA, or if I had actually been let into the country. I wouldn’t have been around to attend that initial outreach interview for a start, and would that have meant I wouldn’t have got my current job further down the line and all the experiences afterwards? Maybe there is a parallel universe in which that life is playing out, in which I have taken a completely different career path and met many different people? Maybe I would have liked the USA so much I might have stayed? Maybe I would have won the lottery? Who knows how events might have unfolded?
It is all purely hypothetical of course, but once again it fascinates me how our choices, not matter how big or small, could possibly change the direction your life takes. If you think about the consequences of every choice you make though you will start to go a bit nuts, as I am now, so I will leave it there to save my own sanity.
Thanks for choosing to read to the end, I hope you believe it was a good choice.