Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Butterfly

Every night before The Girl goes to bed, we have a ritual. I draw the curtains, I close the door, I light a candle, we sit quietly for a moment, and then we do another lesson. Each lesson so far has been an idea: Ockham’s Razor, the Anthropic Principle, and so on. At first I picked the lessons, but more and more they pick themselves.

Could you tell me what the Anthropic Principle is? I asked.

“Um … things are the way things are because … if they were any other way, we wouldn’t be here,” The Girl said.

Example, I said. I don’t want her to just recite things. 

“But you know, I don’t think that’s true,” The Girl said, changing the subject. How do you mean? I asked.

“Well, we could live in a world where all our houses were fun houses and all our looking-glasses were carnival glasses, but we’d still be the same people we are now,” she said.

Interesting point, I said. But what would have to happen to change all our houses into fun houses, and how would that affect everything else?

The Girl thought for a moment. “Well,” she said, “It would make everything else different.”

I think it would, I said, and that would mean that all the things you remember wouldn’t be the same, so you wouldn’t be the same person. The things that made up you wouldn’t be the same, so you wouldn’t be you.

As an example, I told The Girl about her great-grammy and great-grandpa, who rode the trolley together in St. Louis before he was called to war -- if one of them had worked different jobs, they might not have been on the same trolley, and they might not have ever met. I talked about her friend Abby – I met her mother when we were teenagers, and if I hadn’t, she and Abby wouldn’t be friends.

“That would be terrible!” she said.

I’ll give you one more example, I said. You know Richard III was killed in battle, right? Well, the story goes that his horse lost a nail in his shoe. Because of the nail, the horse lost its shoe. Because the horse couldn’t run, the king lost his horse. Because the horse was lost, the king fell and was slain. Because of the king, the battle was lost, and because of the battle, England was lost.

“And he lost the Wars of the Roses!” The Girl said – she’s a fan of Richard III, ever since his bones were found under that car park last winter, and she thinks him terribly misjudged by history.

That's right, I said -- so little things have big result. Mathematicians call this the Butterfly Effect – tiny things change huge equations. They say a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and the weather in Ireland changes.

“I’m going to be jealous of butterflies now,” she said.

Why? I asked.

 “Because they have so much power,” she said. “I can’t change part of the world like that.”

I took her face in my hands. You don’t think so? I asked. You’re doing it now.

Photo: The Girl in an unharvested field in the bog. 

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