The Butterfly effect

At the very last minute he saw the butterfly on the pavement and managed to divert his foot to the side. Unfortunately the butterfly saw his foot descending in a crushing fall, flapped its wings and also fluttered to the side.

Bradley’s foot slammed into the butterfly, knocked it to the floor and squashed it. He managed to stop his run before taking another step but it was too late.

For a moment the butterfly was nowhere to be seen and he hoped it had survived, but when he lifted his foot he found it flattened on the bottom of his trainer. He gently peeled its wing and the entire butterfly flopped onto his hand. It was the largest butterfly he’d ever seen.

It looked perfect. The front wings were like stained glass windows constructed from yellow and iridescent black. The back wings were even more spectacular with what looked like two central red eyes with blue eye shadow over them. These were surrounded by blue and red echoes that faded slowly while transforming into pinks, oranges and blacks. Further up the wings were hints of orange and green.

Bradley looked up and couldn’t see Simon or Andy. They’d ran ahead and were probably already at the park. He wondered if they’d even noticed he was no longer with them. Probably not. It’s not like he was great at football. They’d enjoy playing just as much without him.

He turned back towards his home cradling the delicate structure in his palm.

When Bradley was ten there were no computers you could switch on and search. There was nothing in his home that could tell him anything about the butterfly. His mum had never seen one like it. She didn’t think his dad would know either.

Mum suggested that Bradley go to the library. She couldn’t take him herself as it was wash day. She was pretty sure that it would be open on Monday, especially in the school holidays. He’d just have to go and find out.

Once again Bradley was hampered by the lack of facilities that modern children take for granted. He couldn’t check the library opening times on the internet, there was no internet. If they’d had a phone at home he could have found the library phone number in the large yellow telephone directory and then called them to see when they were open. He could have taken some coins to the red telephone box on the corner but no one at that time would contemplate using precious pennies when it was simple enough to walk the mile to the library. Even if it was closed he was sure there’d be a notice on the door telling him the opening times for the rest of the week.

What made Bradley’s trip slightly more difficult was carrying his precious cargo. With a mobile phone he would have simply taken a photograph and used that for his enquires. Instead he found an old shoe box and nestled the butterfly safely in tissue paper.

He’d never been to the library before. It was a single storey building with short fat towers topped with red domes in each corner. He passed it every day on his way to school. If it hadn’t been built in red brick it would have looked like a castle.

He was nervous as he went in and could hardly answer when the woman asked him if he wanted any help. He held up his box, opened the lid and asked her if she knew what it was.

“A butterfly, but I expect you knew that.”

She smiled at him.

“If you want to find out more then you’ll need to go to the Lepidoptera section – it’s 595 and I think it’s point 78.”

Bradley looked confused.

“I’ll show you.”

She led him into one of the round towers. Books encased the walls. She went directly to a shelf and pointed to the numbers on the spines.

“Here. 595.78 I was right. Lepidoptera – that’s moths and butterflies. I’m pretty sure your specimen is a butterfly so how about this book.”

She slid out a book and passed it to Bradley.

“There’s a desk there,” she said.

He laid the book on the desk. On the cover were four butterflies but none of them was his. He opened the book and started turning the pages one by one. On each page was a painted illustration of a butterfly along with a description and information about its habitat and life cycle.

When he finally reached the page with his butterfly he almost didn’t recognise it. The colours were so much less vibrant and the pattern wasn’t exactly the same. There was more yellow and less black. There were no red eyes although the illustration did have red smears along the edge of the bottom wing.

The butterfly was a swallowtail and described as Britain’s largest butterfly. It was also a long way from home. Its usual habitat was the Norfolk Broads. He remembered a family holiday to the Norfolk Boards. Travelling there had had taken many hours. They’d stayed on a camp site with lots of insects but none as attractive as the swallowtail.

Bradley returned home with the Observer Book of Butterflies. The first thing he showed his mum was the date stamp which told them when he had to take the book back. He also showed her his library pocket card and excitedly told her he was allowed to borrow two books at a time.

It was only after he had given a lengthy explanation of the library system that he opened the book to show her the page with the swallowtail.

The term butterfly effect emerged around the same time as Bradley borrowed his first library book. It was originally coined to illustrate how small changes could have big impacts on the formation and paths of tornados. Bradley would have never seen tornados in Silicon Valley if it hadn’t been for that Swallowtail.

You might imagine that the incident inspired Bradley to become a lepidopterist, to study entomology or perhaps it ignited a passion for the natural world.

The opposite was true. Bradley stopped playing football, no longer played out with Simon and Andy and spent more and more of his time indoors – initially surrounded by books but these soon gave way to the burgeoning world of computers.

Years later when he thought about that swallowtail what he remembered most vividly was the frustration and difficulty in answering a simple question. It had taken him hours and several miles of walking just to find out the name of the butterfly.

Thanks in part to his own work, next time he squashed an unknown insect all he’d need to do was to point his smart phone in the right direction and immediately he’d be told more than he could possibly want to know.

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