Time Travel & The Butterfly Effect
One of my favorite stories as a child was Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder.
It is the story of time-travel tourism in which a hunter pays an enormous fee to be whisked back in time to hunt dinosaurs, specifically, the heart-stopping T-Rex.
Because the time-travel experts believed that small actions could impact history in unimaginable ways, there were a couple of rules, specified by the lead tour guide, Travis:
The hunting party, Eckels, Billings, and Kramer, must agree to only shoot specific animals which time travel had ascertained would die within moments anyway.
The hunters must never leave a specially-built path which hovers above the landscape.
Eckels is a loud-mouth coward who promptly loses his cool when he hears the “thunder” of his approaching shidduch (match)—the terrible T-Rex. In his dread, he falls off the path.
Quickly, the guides shoot the beast, just a few moments before a tree was supposed to fall on it, thereby, it is hoped, averting future disaster.
But nothing may be left behind in time, so Travis forces the feckless Eckels to remove the bullets from its corpse, threatening to leave him behind if he doesn’t get on with it.
Finally, the mis-adventurers return to the present, Eckels included, but when they do, they notice some changes—minor ones at first.
For example, the spelling of some common words have changed. But soon their worst fears are realized: they realize that their trip back in time has changed the present in ways unimaginable.
They see the news: A tyrannical fascist named Deutscher, who had most definitely lost the Presidential elections shortly before the safari began, was now president!
There, on the sole of one, a tiny, partially-crushed butterfly is wedged into the muddy treads.
Can you imagine how you would feel?
Worse yet, Eckels pleads to return to the past to undo the damage, yet Travis is enraged; he unlocks his gun’s safety and the story ends with a different kind of “sound of thunder.”
With Eckel’s homicide (or Travis’s suicide, which, Mr. Bradbury doesn’t reveal), going back in time and fixing the past is truly impossible.
A Child’s Eye View
I remember reading the story over and over again as a child, enthralled by the notion that one tiny action could alter history so dramatically.
I re-imagined Eckel’s feelings over and over again. I felt sorry for him!
The story was meaningful to me because an important adult (and I knew Bradbury was an important adult because he wrote books), confirmed my innate belief that each life had some deep meaning.
Existence—the butterfly’s in the story, Ray Bradbury’s, even mine—mattered!
This was despite the fact I was never given this message growing up—status, material things, progress, beauty, intellect, and most of all, applaudable achievements—these were considered to be deep and important.
But here was Mr. Ray Bradbury, who wore glasses and wrote books of stories that made me think, saying that each life—even a butterfly’s— had intrinsic importance.
The Butterfly Effect
Today, when we use the term “the butterfly effect” we are referring to any small action that might have unintended and unpredictable consequences.
Originally, the term was coined specifically to describe a weather event.
Scientists tells us that it’s conceivable that a puff of wind, caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, might be the catalyst for a series of weather-pattern changes that could turn a breezy day sometime in the future, into a blizzard.
In the story, it was the tiny butterfly’s death that was a catalyst for dramatic change.
More on the butterfly, time travel, and mysticism, soon.
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2013). Time Travel & The Butterfly Effect. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/therapy-soup/2013/01/time-travel-the-butterfly-effect/