Studies of chaos and turbulence are unveiling hidden relationships in nature. Diverse phenomena, such as the patterns of Saturn’s rings, measles outbreaks, and the onset of heart attacks, all follow chaotic patterns.
Often, a system that is predictable in the long run shows chaotic variations in the short run. Although it is quite difficult to predict specific daily weather behavior in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, the overall long-term patterns are generally known. Likewise, the individual motion of insects may be random and insignificant, yet the behavior of a population as a whole can be analyzed.
As shown in this Snack, a very slight difference in the starting position of the pendulum can grow to a tremendous difference in the pattern of motion in a short time. This is characteristic of chaotic systems. Weather scientists recognize this characteristic of chaos when they argue over the “butterfly phenomenon,” which asks whether a butterfly flapping its wings in China can affect the weather in New York.