The Sound of Science – “Chaos Theory”

Welcome to The Sound of Science from WNIJ and NIU STEAM. This is a weekly series explaining important STEM concepts. Today’s hosts are Jeremy Benson and Newt Likier.

You may have heard that a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can trigger a natural disaster halfway around the world. Or that going back in time and making even a small change could completely change the present. This is called the butterfly effect. But is it science fiction or factual science?

According to what is called chaos theory, small changes within a complex system can trigger consequences with large and unpredictable impacts. My favorite example is that the movie Jaws indirectly led to an increase in shark incidents along the California coast.

The release of a killer shark film caused widespread fear, which in turn caused an increase in shark hunting. The reduced number of sharks allowed the seal population to explode and the seals spread along the coast. When the shark population later recovered, they followed their food. More seals living near beaches where humans relax and play means more sharks hunting near waters where humans swim.

We can also see examples in our own backyard. You may have noticed in recent years that visiting Canada geese seem to stay longer each year. But what would prevent them from migrating?

As the second-largest corn-producing state, Illinois is already responsible for about 15% of the nation’s corn production. And farmers are growing more each year to meet growing demand.

And with so much corn, there is an equally large amount of waste left over after harvest. Waste is often left in the fields to help revitalize the soil, which also provides an easy food source for foul-smelling poultry that hasn’t flown into the coop.

There are of course other factors too, and everything around us is a complicated web of cause and effect. And in this complicated system, even small changes can have big impacts.

Chaos theory tells us that even the smallest actions today have the power to affect the future in unexpected ways.

If there’s anything you want to learn about the world, submit your questions to [email protected]

This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ. Where you learn something new every day.

Sharon D. Cole