My introduction to the concept (in the mathematical sense) of chaos theory was Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. I read it as a kid; as a kid my favourite part was when Nedry got his at the wrong end of a dilophosaurus. I immediately liked the character of Ian Malcolm, the mathematician who wore nothing but black and gray, accurately predicted the collapse of seemingly impervious systems at every turn, and manfully restrained himself from punching the air and yelling ‘QED, bitches!’ every time a velociraptor gutted a secondary character. I was young, so I didn’t understand a lot of what he was saying, but that hardly mattered by the time the film came out. Jeff Golfblum played Malcolm as warm and funny, as only Goldblum can, and that was enough for me¹.
In the novel, and in brief, Malcolm explains some of the basic ideas behind chaos theory, most specifically the pop-culture touchstone of the butterfly effect. As Malcolm tells it, to determine where a cannon ball – once fired from a cannon – will land should be a simple business; if you calculate the force of the propulsion involved and the trajectory the cannonball will take, based on the elevation of the cannon, and apply these factors to the weight of the ball itself, then you should be able to make a pretty accurate prediction of where the arc of the ball. This is what’s known as a linear system; a system where the calculations involved remain the same and you simply plug in new values to get different results. Isaac Newton loved them, and if you’re looking to understand things like mechanical motions, electrical circuits, or sound waves, then linear equations are your go-to guys.
But chaos theory concerns itself with non-linear systems; systems defined by, among other things, their high sensitivity to initial conditions. This is where the butterfly comes in – weather being just such a non-linear system. Because the development of weather systems is so complex and dependent on previous iterations of the system, tiny changes at the onset – say, something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings – can alter the entire course of the day. The butterfly flaps its wings and you and your family enjoy a sunny, cloudless day. The butterfly doesn’t flap and tornadoes devastate the Midwest.
My own personal knowledge of chaos theory and related topics is entirely abstract and hugely general, with no basis in physics or mathematics, and, really, more gaps than knowledge. Thanks to Wikipedia and lunch hours at work, I understand the concepts of cascading failure (ie, for want of a nail), black swans (ie, surprise!), and fractals (ie, best friend of stoned college students). I understand these things in my humanities background kind of way, and I take a vague comfort in knowing that there is such a thing as chaos control, the idea that points exist where a chaotic system can be knocked back into some semblance of predictability.
Knowing these things, I try to look at storms differently. There are clouds overhead right now, and from one perspective – on the surface of things – the term ‘storm’ merely refers to rain and lightning and thunder and the need to shut the window if I want to avoid getting my computer wet. From a more quantum-oriented perspective the thunderhead rolling over is really wheels within wheels within wheels; energy and matter and physics and electricity and the breaking of the sound barrier, interacting and interplaying according to the moments that have preceded them, cause and effect going back in time and space to the initial development of the storm and something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings; an air current that went one way instead of any one of a hundred others.
Which may not seem to make that big of a difference, but, when you think about it, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now if a girl named Leah hadn’t wanted to kiss me when I was 17.The steps go like so:
1. Leah wanted to kiss me (also, yes, I wanted to kiss Leah).
2. Because Leah wanted to kiss me (and I wanted to kiss Leah) we sat and made awkward small talk in the backyard of a friend’s house at a high school party.
3. Because we sat and talked, I told her I needed to find a job.
4. Because I told her this, she found me a job at the club she worked at.
5. Because I worked at the club, I ended up going on a short-lived reality TV show.
6. Because I went on that show, I became friends with the host (on MySpace).
7. Because I was MySpace friends with the host, I became friends with Zoe Brock (on MySpace).
8. Because I was MySpace friends with Zoe Brock, I decided that when I was going to move to the States, I would move to San Francisco, where I at least vaguely knew some people.
9. Because I moved to San Francisco, I met Zoe in person.
10. Because I met Zoe, I ended up writing for TNB.
It’s important to remember that these events in time and space aren’t set up in ranks of patiently-waiting dominos. There’s more to the world than action:reaction, stimulus: response. Movement through life is through a vast – and vastly complex – interplay of events and non-events. It’s impossible to pick a definitive starting point for any one situation and draw a thread of causality from one moment to another².
And people are more complicated than weather systems, it’s true, but they do have their similarities. They’ll rain on your parade, storm out of the room, bring some sunshine into your day… even blow you, if you’re lucky.
Just as we can’t fully map weather systems, it would take an intelligence and a perspective far greater than human to pick a single event that’s occurred in the life of any given person, capture and draw it out of time like a blood sample on a slide and then reverse-engineer it, step by step, and say: ‘That’s where, ultimately, this started.’ At birth? Sure. That’s a beginning for a person, depending on how you want to apply the label ‘beginning’ to a mass of molecules and energy movements moving from one position to another. But any given birth necessitated that two parents moved through the world until they came to that precise moment of conception that led to that birth, and that’s also true for those parents, and for the parents of those parents, and so on and so on, all the way back to the start of time. And maybe if one of those parents in that long line had been caught in the rain on the way over to their lover’s house, everything that followed from that divergent point would have been entirely different.
Here and now, we are all the accumulation of all that has gone before us, everything that has happened, or hasn’t happened, to bring us to this point. Right now I’m writing this because someone somewhere decided that working on a Sunday was to be avoided, so I don’t have to go to work today, affording me the time I need to write this article. I’m also writing this now because a car didn’t hit and kill me yesterday as I went to meet my friend Jay for coffee. And I’m writing this right here and now and as the person I am because of every single experience and event that has come before 7:23pm, January 17, 2010.
I mentioned kissing in the title.
When two people kiss, two worlds – separate in some ways, connected in others – meet. When you (the individual you, the general you, me, my neighbours, your neighbours, anyone and everyone) kiss someone else, it’s not just your lips on theirs; it’s everything, everything that has preceded it coming together, because every single thing shaped that precise moment. If I kiss someone (it happens, sometimes), then that moment, and that person, is connected to every single thing that makes me, me, and forevermore will be.
The physics that Orville and Wilbur Wright put to work to shake the hold of the earth in the Kitty Hawk in 1903 are present in me, because they led to me crossing the Pacific³. Running down a back street in Templestowe, flanked by five other frantic teenage guys, holding a flaming, gasoline-doused pizza box – that moment is there too. The rain on my grandfather’s face, the rain that followed complex chaotic rules that my grandfather, to my knowledge, never even dreamed of – that too played a part, however small, in who I am. My personal history, the personal histories of my friends and family, of the people I’ve met… they’re all here in the effect they’ve had. Moments of doubt, or pain, or triumph, or love, or laughter; moments when physics I’ll never be able to understand were at work, moments that I will never, ever be aware of, all of them combine and inter-react to bring me here, now. And if and when I kiss someone, those have brought me to that place too.
At the same time, it’s also just a kiss.
So, do me a favour. Make out with someone – anyone you like – and bring a little more connection into the world. Be the butterfly that flaps its wings and maybe alters the course of everything; if they need some convincing, just direct them to this piece and let them know that they’ll be acting as part of a wonderful, chaotic, complex system of cause and effect that took millennia to bring them to today.
And tell them I say, what up. Because I want to go back to San Francisco, and apparently, people making out is how that works.
¹ This was before I’d a) seen The Fly and b) realised that Goldblum had spoiled my chances at a shot with Geena Davis.
² despite the fact that yes, that is precisely what I have just done in this example.
³ I’m also amused that they subsequently had a debate with the Smithsonian Institute about the precise details of that.