On science, Bob Newhart and the ‘butterfly effect’

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts on how scientific research, even when it doesn’t make headlines, can have a powerful effect on our lives and our economy.

Comedian Bob Newhart’s career really took off after someone stole one of his routines and performed it on Steve Allen’s television show (the predecessor to the "Tonight Show"). Essentially a shy individual, Newhart had done some stuff on radio for a DJ friend, and he says that when he saw Allen’s show he figured the only way to protect his material was to perform it himself.

It was a chance occurrence that Newhart happened to be watching when the stolen routine was performed. There were no home video recorders in those days, so if you missed a broadcast, you missed it. It’s quite possible that if Newhart hadn’t seen the performance, he would not have been "pushed into stand-up," as he describes it.

His career, and decades of television, would have been very different, changed in ways that we can only guess at.

Like Newhart’s decision to turn on the TV, seemingly inconsequential events, chance meetings and trivial decisions have been the stuff of dramas for centuries. But it is only recently that they have become the stuff of science.

In 1972, Edward Lorenz gave a talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science titled "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?" It launched chaos theory into prominence, not only in popular media but in science itself.

Actually, re-launched would be more accurate, since the basics of chaos theory were described by physicist and mathematician Henri Poincare in the early 20th century.

According to Poincare, chaos theory has two essential parts. The first is that large, complex systems have an underlying order. They don’t defy the laws of physics. The second is that very small events can cause very significant effects — something called a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions." The result is the appearance of disorder, or unpredictability.

Poincare’s theory was interesting, but had been pretty much left behind in dust-bunny land as scientists rushed to understand new things. Years later, Lorenz discovered just how sensitive systems could be when he was using a computer to solve a set of differential equations in a large, complex weather model.

Like any good scientist, he decided to rerun his stuff on the computer to check the accuracy of the calculations. Thinking that he could save some computer time, when he re-entered one of the numbers he rounded it off from .506,127 to .506. No big whoop, as we might say.

But the difference in the results was huge, leading Lorenz to the conclusion that the model was extremely sensitive to the initial conditions, which in turn led him — and an entire generation of scientists — to embrace the idea of dynamic instability and the "butterfly effect."

Most things that involve differential equations never make it to public consciousness, but Lorenz was a weatherman, and that gave us something to which we could relate.

No wonder the weather forecasts are so often wrong if some fool butterfly 5,000 miles away can wreck the computer model. Today, nearly everyone has heard the term chaos theory, and even though we may not understand it with scientific precision, the butterfly effect is part of our pop culture. There is a recent movie, in fact, called "The Butterfly Effect," which, fortunately, contains no differential equations.

But it is the effects on science that chaos theory and the butterfly effect have had the most impact. And for the reason, we have to go back to Bob Newhart.

The comedy routine that was stolen from Newhart involved a monologue where he was supposedly a U.S. submarine commander. As it opens, he is addressing his crew over the public address system: "I’ve just been notified that we’ll be surfacing in just a moment, and you will be happy to know that you’ll be gazing on the familiar skyline… of either New York City or Buenos Aires."

The idea that the submarine skipper wouldn’t know where they were was very funny, of course, but anchored to a new reality of submarine navigation. The advent of nuclear power had made it possible for submarines to travel submerged for thousands of miles. How could they tell where they were?

Something called the submarine inertial navigation system, or SINS, was developed. It was manufactured by the Boeing Co. and used gyroscopes to calculate differences in speed and direction from the sub’s starting point.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes "Business 101," which appears monthly in The Snohomish County Business Journal.

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