Is the butterfly effect real? Take the quiz!


Can the tiny, fragile wings of a butterfly really change the weather on the other side of the world? Does increased understanding of complexity and chaos allow us to control and predict future events, or even travel through time?

start quiz

Question 1 of 20

Which of these best describes the butterfly effect?

In chaotic systems, small initial variations can trigger big changes down the road.
It takes a big change to make a big change.
A single change always leads to at least two other changes.

... The butterfly effect is an illustration of chaos theory that demonstrates how small initial variations can trigger an unpredictable outcome. It is based on the idea that an event as seemingly insignificant as the flutter of a butterfly's wings can cause massive changes down the road in a chaotic system like the weather.


Question 2 of 20

What scientific principle is based on the idea that tiny variations in the initial conditions of complex systems can create unpredictable outcomes?

destruction theory
chaos theory
frenzy theory

... Chaos theory accepts that some systems are unpredictable. While they still follow the laws of physics, immeasurably small differences in initial conditions can lead to vast changes over time.


Question 3 of 20

Have the flapping wings of a butterfly ever been shown to cause a tornado on the other side of the world?

Yes -- tiny changes affect complex systems in powerful ways.
No -- the effect of a single butterfly is, in reality, too small to make a difference.
We can show this possibility mathematically, but we can't measure such a relationship physically.

... While we can show mathematically that complex systems like weather are sensitive to tiny variations, we often can't measure these effects in the real world. Even if a butterfly's flapping wings were to cause a major storm, we would have no way of tracking the link between cause and effect -- the system is just too complex.


Question 4 of 20

When MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz first discovered the butterfly effect, what animal did he use to help him describe his new idea?


... In 1963, Lorenz explained how the flapping wings of a seagull could alter the global weather. By 1972, he had switched to a butterfly -- perhaps because the phrase "seagull effect" sounds at least 80 percent less mind-boggling.


Question 5 of 20

What was Lorenz studying when he came up with his idea for the butterfly effect?

the stock market
human evolution

... Lorenz was studying weather when he discovered that seemingly minor changes in data could completely alter a forecast.


Question 6 of 20

What seemingly minor change led Lorenz to discover the butterfly effect?

a difference in rounding within a computer simulation
a difference in the language of survey questions
a tiny difference in the mass of a jet turbine

... In 1961, Lorenz discovered that his weather simulation experiments produced significantly different results when he rounded figures to four decimal places instead of seven.


Question 7 of 20

Since the discovery of the butterfly effect, how far out do scientists believe anyone can accurately predict the weather?

two months
three weeks
a few days

... Lorenz's work on the butterfly effect shows that weather is simply too chaotic and unpredictable to forecast beyond a few days with any useful degree of accuracy.


Question 8 of 20

What science fiction writer was ahead of his time when he published "A Sound of Thunder" -- a story which contained elements of the butterfly effect?

Ray Bradbury
Isaac Asimov
Stephen King

... Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," first published in 1952, describes how the accidental death of a butterfly could have far-reaching effects in the future.


Question 9 of 20

What feature do all chaotic systems share?

They involve the weather.
They are nonlinear.
They involve predictions about subatomic particles.

... All chaotic systems are nonlinear, which means that they change at a dynamic or non-constant rate, and that their inputs and outputs are not necessarily proportional.


Question 10 of 20

Fact or fiction: Chaos theory proves the Newtonian idea that real-world systems are only 100 percent predictable if you measure with extreme accuracy.


... Fiction: Prior to the development of chaos theory, many Newtonians believed that all systems would eventually be predictable if one could measure them with total accuracy. Chaos theory changed that way of thinking by proving that some systems will never be perfectly predictable.


Question 11 of 20

Fact or fiction: Further study of the butterfly effect could make time travel a possibility at some point.


... Fiction: Despite pop culture references, the butterfly effect will not open up the possibility of time travel. It may, however, offer some tips on why traveling to the past is just generally a bad idea.


Question 12 of 20

Which of the following is not an example of the butterfly effect?

A major increase in carbon fuel consumption leads to global warming.
An oscillating fan in Tokyo causes a thunderstorm in New York.
A single stock market trade leads to a global recession.

... If fuel use increases by a large percentage, this can be considered a major change in initial conditions rather than a minor one. Such a major change is not an example of the butterfly effect.


Question 13 of 20

What classic holiday film illustrates the butterfly effect?

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
A Christmas Story (1983)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

... In Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey (James Stewart) thinks the world would be better off without him and tempts his guardian angel to show him what his home town would look like if he had never been born. Fans of the movie get to see the butterfly effect in action when the removal of a single man changes the lives of everyone in a small town.


Question 14 of 20

In this film, scientist Ian Malcolm warns the owners of a tourist attraction that chaos theory could render their careful plans futile.

Sliding Doors (1998)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Avatar (2009)

... In "Jurassic Park" (1993), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) warns that the titular park is unstable because the complex bio-technological system that keeps it working is unpredictable by nature.


Question 15 of 20

Fact or fiction: The butterfly effect states that certain outcomes are wildly sensitive to initial conditions.


... Fact: Sensitivity to initial conditions is key. The butterfly effect is based on the idea that some outcomes are extremely sensitive to undetectably small changes in initial conditions. That's why it actually could be possible for a butterfly's wings to trigger or prevent a storm months later.


Question 16 of 20

In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, Homer experiences the butterfly effect first-hand when he goes back in time and kills one of these.

a butterfly
a mosquito
an ant

... After Homer travels through time and kills a mosquito, he returns to find a world ruled by his nemesis Ned Flanders.


Question 17 of 20

What name is given to the graphical representation of nonlinear systems?


... Fractals are amazing graphical pictures that represent chaotic or nonlinear systems.


Question 18 of 20

Which of the following is basically a linear, non-chaotic system?

population growth in a coral reef ecosystem
the gravitational effects of three asteroids on one another
a flashlight

... Most real-world systems are nonlinear and chaotic. In a linear system, the output is proportional to the input. Ecosystems and multi-dimensional gravity interactions are chaotic and unpredictable, whereas a flashlight essentially produces a reliable output (light) based on a constant input (battery power).


Question 19 of 20

What close cousin of the butterfly effect is based on the idea that in some situations, continuous actions can produce discontinuous results?

catastrophe theory
destruction theory
continuous theory

... Catastrophe theory is defined by singularity, where continuous or constant actions can produce discontinuous results.


Question 20 of 20

Fact or fiction: Your heart and brain are subject to the butterfly effect.


... Fact: Studies have shown that applying a single extra nerve impulse to the brain can result in a million extra pulses over time.


More Curiosity

The 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth

The 10 Most Amazing Places on Earth

When you're surrounded by cubicles and concrete, it's easy to forget that we live on a planet packed full of breathtaking natural beauty, so take a trip with us as we explore 10 of the very best the Earth has to offer.

Top 10 Memorable TV Moments Ever

Top 10 Memorable TV Moments Ever

From The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show to the latest breaking news, TV makes more memories than there are viewers. Here are 10 of the most talked-about broadcasts in television history.