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Chaos Theory Revisited

July 29, 2005

How would you like to be the commander of the Space Shuttle at the moment? You’ve just found out that your take-off experienced a similar mishap to the one that eventually killed the previous Space Shuttle crew on re-entry: ie. The foam insulation on the external fuel tank broke off and hit the spacecraft.

Here is her reaction: “We were actually quite surprised to hear that we had some large pieces of debris fall off the external tank,” Commander Eileen Collins said…”I don’t think we should fly again unless we do something to prevent this from happening again.” Here is the link for the full interview and article.

When it happened on the last flight, everyone from the Commander of the Shuttle to the NASA engineers said it was too small an event to be concerned about. They didn’t even bother to check out the condition of the heat shield while docked in space. After all, the piece of foam that broke off the first time was so small and light that a small child could pick it up with ease. Yet, by the time the shuttle came through our atmosphere at extreme speeds and built-up velocity temperature, the “non-event” of the foam insulation carried huge implications.

Right now, they are yawing the craft and taking many pics to determine the state of the heat shield. I can imagine. Score another one for Chaos Theory.

If you’re not a mathematician, and I assume most reading this are not, let me give you a bird’s eye view of this very speculative and fascinating field of study. Chaos Theory says that the more one studies an item, the more complexity is found. The more complex something is, the harder it will be to predict its future actions. This theory lead to another theory, popularly called “The Butterfly Effect”. This effect supposes that all of our weather is inconceivably complex; so much so that if a butterfly takes off from a flower and disturbs the air around it, the resulting change in air pressure and movement can set off a chain of events that may lead to a Monsoon halfway across the planet. An avante-garde film was made about chaos theory called “The Butterfly Effect” which I would recommend if Ashton Kucher had not been in it.

Chaos Theory also teaches us something about choices. We often do not see the significance of each choice we make throughout a day. We do not consider that bad choices, which we might consider to be of little or no consequence, may carry huge “butterfly effect” catastrophes with them. Perhaps you remember this children’s nursery rhyme:

For want of a nail
the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe
the horse was lost.
For want of a horse
the rider was lost.
For want of a rider
the battle was lost.
For want of a battle
the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want
of a horseshoe nail.

A horseshoe nail can cost a kingdom. As they said in World War 1: “Loose lips sink ships”.

A friend of mine worked for a company that hosted helicopter ski missions in Eastern British Columbia, with breathtaking views of virginal snowcapped peaks. During one trip up, a guide decided to take two skiers with her to a new glacier they had never traversed. All three were expert skiers and knew their stuff. But, the girl was in such a hurry to get up there, she didn’t double-check the tie-downs on the skis which were on the top deck of the chopper. During flight, one of the skis worked loose and flew into the blades. The chopper came down instantly and all four were killed.

In therapy last year, I spoke with an elderly man who had struggled for years with depression. When we entered one phase of his therapy, we got down to the core of his problems. When he was twelve, a friend of his took ten dollars from his bedroom and never paid him back. For years, he held hatred of this kid in his heart. He decided from that day forward that no one in his life was trustworthy. He also decided never to allow anyone to get close to him. Because all of us are communal beings, he suffered this tension between needing community and fearing it.

The Butterfly Effect was still working in him 57 years later.

I believe that the major limitation to any behavioral science is the absolute complexity of the heart of a person. Behaviorism believes that by careful observation and study, we can understand the motivations and actions of any human being. In fact, if the course of a person’s life can be reasonably charted, then the prescription for correction can be adequately assessed. But that’s a big “if”. I think this theory falls victim more often than not to chaos theory. People are too complex to chart. The minutia of our lives defies any attempt to explain them. How can anyone trace back depression 57 years to its humble beginnings, its beating of a butterfly’s wings? I certainly can’t, which is why I believe that we must know ourselves and know God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Only God can reveal the secret motivations of the heart. Once we see our own hearts, then and only then can we chart a course of future actions.

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One comment

  1. Recently, I decided to call my sister and ask her a question about something that happened when we were growing up. She got very defensive and told me she was still angry about that. This is 20 years later. There has always been a distance between us, and now I know why. But honestly, when I look at it, it seems like such a trifling event. I really do need to see the implications of some of the things I say. Thanks for this post.



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