First published in Collier’s magazine in June of 1952, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” went on to become one of the most frequently re-published short science fiction stories of all time, but the concept at its heart was far from new.
The story, set in 2055, centers on a wealthy man who pays to travel back in time in order to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. The hunt has been well planned. The dinosaur is already destined to die naturally mere moments after the fatal shot, and the safari company has provided platforms designed to elevate the hunt participants off the natural landscape so their actions in the past may affect as little future change as possible. But despite stern warnings of the dangers of altering the past, the wealthy man loses his cool when faced with T. rex and in his panic, he leaves the path.
The group returns to the future to discover things aren’t quite the same. Words are spelled differently, election outcomes have changed, and humanity’s collective outlook is strangely altered. The man then notices in the mud on his boot, a crushed butterfly that apparently died before its time.
Though the concept of tiny alterations in initial conditions affecting significant differences in outcomes (known as chaos theory) was first described by Henri Poincaré in 1890, it was mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz who first applied the term “butterfly effect.” He noted that even a very slight change in his data entry (like rounding off a few decimal places) led to drastically different weather model outcomes. It was as if a butterfly flapping its wings caused a miniscule shift in the atmosphere that may eventually lead to the formation of a tornado.
I admit, it sounds a little crazy, and I’m certainly no expert on chaos theory, but I did have the opportunity earlier this week to help chaperone my son’s second grade class fieldtrip to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Butterfly House.
Upon arrival I was handed a clipboard with a checklist of butterfly behaviors we might observe and the names of five second-graders for whom I would be responsible. And that should have been fine. The kids seemed like a good bunch: my son, two other little boys who appeared relatively cooperative, and two sweet little girls who were all smiles. I was feeling pretty confident about the whole thing.
But then, just as the outer atrium door shut behind us and twenty-five second-graders along with their teacher, several chaperones, and one butterfly expert loudly sharing important rules (like don’t squish the butterflies because it might alter the space-time continuum) were wedged into a tiny butterfly escape-proof airlock, I felt a small hand squeeze my arm.
It was one of the little boys in my group. I’ll call him Sam, because that’s not his name. Sam’s eyes were as wide as saucers, his skin pale. “I don’t like butterflies,” he whispered.
My chaperone training (which consisted of being handed a clipboard) had not prepared me for such a situation. All I could think to do was whisper back, “We’ll get through this. I promise.”
Right away I could see that Sam didn’t believe me, but the butterfly expert had already opened the inner door and the class filed into the steamy atrium. Sam, shaking slightly, fell in line.
He settled into a slow pace, his eyes darting wildly as delicate wings rushed around him. I found myself worrying that as he paced he would inadvertently squish a butterfly and disrupt the space-time continuum.
While I was busy worrying, an argument broke out between the two girls over who would hold the clipboard. Of course I told them I would hold onto it, but it was too late. It turns out second-grade girls do not forgive easily.
As I attempted to play referee between them, the second little boy (who evidently had trouble hearing his name above the rush of hundreds of fluttering wings) began to wander aimlessly through the atrium. Determined that the space-time continuum would not be altered on my watch, I did the only thing I could. I carefully ushered the remaining four kids in the direction of the wayward boy.
And that’s when my son fell apart. Because the only thing he wanted to do was stand completely still in one place in hopes that a butterfly would choose to land on him, which, sadly, it never did.
And so I juggled, and chaperoned to the best of my ability for what felt like three hours (though it was really probably about 25 minutes) before we finally escaped the atrium and headed to a classroom where the butterfly experts mercifully took over.
I’m delighted to report that I walked out of the atrium with all five of my assigned students, and that even though one of them may be scarred for life by the experience, to the best of my knowledge no butterflies were squished on my watch.
I learned a couple of important things from the experience. First is that second-grade teachers are terribly under-appreciated. And second is that Poincaré, Lorenz, and Bradbury may have been onto something because when a butterfly flaps its wings, whether the space-time continuum is drastically altered or not, one thing is for certain: second grade classes descend into chaos.