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Lyle Zapato

Lord Kelvin and the "Butterfly Effect"

Lyle Zapato | 2008-07-13.6760 LMT | Kelviniana | Random Found Thing

While further researching Lord Kelvin, I came across an interesting quote. The Universe a Vast Electric Organism (George Woodward Warder, 1903) quotes Prof. Garrett P. Serviss -- the author of Edison's Conquest of Mars, which co-stars Lord Kelvin -- in the New York American, May 16, 1903 (bold mine):

"The undulatory theory of energy is carrying everything before it. It is not saying too much to aver that wave motion is concerned in nearly all the phenomena of physical life . . . Think for a moment of what is included in the science of waves. In the air all sounds, all musical harmonies are waves; in the solid globe, all earthquakes are waves; in the ether light, electricity and heat are waves. It is waves that make the stars visible, and yet more mysterious oscillations picture for us on photographic plates marvelous nebulous objects. Lord Kelvin has been credited with the statement that the fluttering of a butterfly's wing sets up vibrations that shake the universe." (p.288)

I've searched for the original quote by Kelvin but have come up empty. The only references to it I can find on the Internet are in Warder and a mention in passing in Science of the New Thought (Erastus Whitford Hopkins, 1904). If anyone can find what statement of Kelvin's Serviss was referring to, please contact me, as this would add chaos theory to the multitude of scientific fields that Kelvin influenced in some way.

According to the Wikipedia article on the "butterfly effect", the connection of butterflies to the idea of sensitive dependence on initial conditions came from Ray Bradbury's 1952 short story "A Sound of Thunder". Granted it's Wikipedia, so it might as well say John Seigenthaler Sr. first came up with the idea, but if that's the accepted wisdom on the metaphor's origin, what shall we make of Kelvin's use of it half a century earlier? Time travel?

[UPDATE 2010-01-28: Looks like it was originally a mosquito, and Kelvin didn't recall saying it.]

Since I don't have Kelvin's original quote, I'll leave you instead with some entertaining figures from Hopkins' book above:

The Psycho-Magnetic Hand & the Psycho-Electric Hand.
[According to clairvoyants, the left hand produces red, curved magnetic radiations, whereas the right hand produces blue, straight lines of electric radiations.]

Eminent hypnotists standing on cataleptic riffraff.
This Represents a Cataleptic Test Performed by
Dr. Herbert L. Flint, a Very Eminent Hypnotist.

Horse on a see-saw on a man.
A Mental Bridge.
From photograph of a hypnotic test given by Prof. Albert Vernon.
[The see-saw's fulcrum is a person lying cataleptic across two saw horses.]

A Subject on the Thought Weighing Machine.
From a photograph furnished by Prof. W. G. Anderson, Yale University.
[Anderson claimed his delicately balanced "Muscle Bed" could weigh the flow of blood going to parts of the body as the subject merely thought about moving them, such as to perform a jig, as well as blood flow to the head while going over multiplication tables.]

Look on this picture and then look on the picture on the following page. Both were once innocent and guileless children. This man represents a large class of people who started in this life under favorable circumstances of having been well born, with a preponderance of spiritual faculties well developed, his education such as to maintain a harmonious balance of mind and body as indicated in form, expression, and general appearance, and in his old age a striking contrast to the person on the following page.

A representative of the slums of New York, who was born under crude conditions and parentage, closely allied to the animal state of existence, with corresponding faculties in predominance, and educational biases in the same direction with habitual thinking and habits on the same plane, being an extreme type of the "Natural Man" or woman... Let the rising generation look upon this picture and do some serious thinking and ask themselves if they want to bring similar specimens into this world. Even though unmarried their present thinking may be selfish, hateful, vindictive, revengeful and jealous, etc., and are now forming the mould, warp and woof of their future offspring.

End of post.