Edward Lorenz, an MIT meteorologist who tried to explain why it is so hard to make good weather forecasts and wound up unleashing a scientific revolution called chaos theory, died April 16  of cancer at his home in Cambridge. He was 90.
A professor at MIT, Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere–or a model of the atmosphere–could trigger vast and often unsuspected results.
Because I am a dean, when a kid is acting up in someone’s class I talk to them. Sometimes I talk to their Mum. Sometimes the Mum comes in and we have a meeting. I can put them on a daily report so that teachers can comment on the performance of the student and that report can come to me and to the parents. I run detentions. When I run detentions I keep them focussed on the school work that hasn’t been done and try to help those students catch up. Most of the students who go down this path have some driver for their behaviour which is understandable. Usually for the boys it is to do with being so far back with their reading, writing and maths that they simply cannot keep up, or don’t know what’s going on in class, or feel ashamed. This is grim because if I’m looking at them as secondary school students then the chances for change have pretty much passed.
There was a girl that came to our school for about a month. She was a Year 9. Someone had bought her a uniform, and a bag, and all her books, but she simply would not go into a classroom. She wandered around the school with her mates laughing whenever we tried to corner her, or talk to her. After a month of this she was kicked out. There was nothing else to be done. At 12 years of age this girl was already beyond hope. Something about this has not left me. It is both clearly wrong, but also clearly unsolvable. She could not be saved by us. Instead I could see a vague map of her future life in my head, and it was a dispiriting picture.
When I went down to the shops one day last term to buy some pizzas for a class (bribes for good attendance) a bunch of ex-students I half recognised were hanging out on the benches outside the shops. It was about 11.00am. They were smoking and talking about going to the bottle store. For them school was done with. Forever. I felt an overwhelming sense of despair well up inside me. Not that I did anything, or said anything, or – let’s face – could have really done anything for them, but I couldn’t help thinking: what or who happened (or failed to happen) for them that led them to this point?
The “innumerable” interconnections of nature, Lorenz noted, mean a butterfly’s flap could cause a tornado – or, for all we know, could prevent one. Similarly, should we make even a tiny alteration to nature, “we shall never know what would have happened if we had not disturbed it,” since subsequent changes are too complex and entangled to restore a previous state.
I found out that the last boy I put on daily report hadn’t been taking the reports home to show Mum and Dad. Mum called me. I had the boy in my office and was stern. He grumbled and stuffed them into his bag. He sulked and promised to take them home. The boy had received bad reports and I gave him a detention. He argued a lot with me on the detention, but it was only token around the edges stuff and he seems a good kid really. We did some work about his dance lesson. I could barely read the handful of half sentences he scrawled in half an hour. We finished the detention with him explaining what he meant and me writing it down for him. Another day and another phone call from Mum. Still no reports coming home. I talked to the boy again. I felt angry and I let him know how he was letting me down.
Later in the day another teacher came to tell me that she had found out that whenever that boy got a bad report or a detention he got beaten up at home.
I began talking to people after that, and various concerned groups began coalescing around this boy. There has been talk of outside agencies. That kind of stuff. Terms like “outside agencies” are words that sound reassuring, they are the sounds a social system makes when its slow, awkward mechanism begins to clank into life. Somehow I am not reassured. After all, who’s to say that the dissection of a family by the state is not the destruction of the most meaningful, strangely-twisted and loving unit that this boy might know, and that it will be replaced with, well, with nothing. Of course it must be done, but in attempting to end this wrong, I wonder what future wrongs will be created.
Matters compounded for me when I discovered that I had been misreading interactions between some students in one of my own classes and that I had unintentionally been allowing bullying to occur right under my nose.
First, do no harm.
When I am confronted with my own failure I tend to try and make sense of things. My actions appear to have much larger potential for both good and bad than I had previously imagined, but I also seem to have no way of knowing all of the ways my actions or even my lack of action will have repercussions. I can neither act or not act to solve this. I must simply carry on creating infinite effects, some of which may cause harm even when I am in a position that is supposed to create good or, at the least, reduce harm.
“It’s impossible for humans to measure everything infinitely accurately,” says Robert Devaney, a mathematics professor at Boston University. “And if you’re off at all, the behavior of the solution could be completely off.” When small imprecisions matter greatly, the world is radically unpredictable.
Which leads me from science to theology:
From a purely human standpoint the wisdom traditions are the species’ most prolonged and serious attempts to infer from the maze on this side of the tapestry the pattern which, on its right side, gives meaning to the whole. As the beauty and harmony of the design derive from the way its parts are related, the design confers on those parts a significance that we, seeing only scraps of the design, do not normally perceive.
The World’s Religions – Huston Smith
How is it possible that the “no” I circle on a report leads to the raised fist in a home? And in what early exchange in a classroom years ago was that boy turned off reading by a teacher, or a friend, or a foe who may not have even noticed what they had done? Or was it a slow unravelling? Life on this side of the tapestry is confused and terrifyingly complex; a storm created by butterflies?