In 1963, Edward Lorenz presented a hypothesis to the New York Academy of Science. His theory, stated simply, was that:
A butterfly could flap its wings and set molecules of air in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving more molecules of air – eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.
Lorenz and his ideas were literally laughed out of the conference. What he had proposed was ridiculous. It was preposterous. But it was fascinating!
Therefore, because of the ideas charm and intrigue, the so-called “butterfly effect” became a staple of science fiction, remaining for decades a combination of myth and legend spread only by comic books and bad movies.
So imagine the scientific community’s shock and surprise when, more than 30 years after the possibility was introduced, physics professors working from colleges and universities worldwide came to the conclusion that the butterfly effect was authentic, accurate and viable.
Soon after, it was accorded the status of a “law.” Now known as The Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions, this principle has proven to be a force encompassing more than mere butterfly wings. Science has shown the butterfly effect to engage with the first movement of any form of matter – including people.
On Friday, April 2, 2004, ABC News honored a man who, at that time, was 91 years old. The news program was running a regular segment called “Person of the Week.” Usually the honoree’s accomplishments are listed in advance and by the time the name is announced, most folks have already guessed the identity of that week’s recipient. In this instance, however, the pronouncement left many viewers puzzled.
“And so…our Person of the Week is…” the anchorman finally said, “Norman Borlaug!”
One can only imagine the frowns. Who? Who did he say? Norman…what was the last name?
Yet, despite our unfamiliarity, Norman Borlaug is a man who is personally responsible for drastically and dramatically changing the world in which we live. You see, in the early 1940s, Norman Borlaug hybridized high-yield, disease-resistant corn and wheat for arid climates. From the dust bowl of Western Africa to our own desert Southwest, from South and Central America to the plains of Siberia, across Europe and Asia, Borlaug’s specific seed product flourished and regenerated where no seed had ever thrived before. Through the years, it has now been calculated that Norman Borlaug’s work saved more than two billion lives from famine.
Actually, it was never reported, but the anchorman was misinformed. It was not Norman Borlaug who saved the two billion people, though very few caught the mistake. It was Henry Wallace.
Henry Wallace was the Vice President of the United States under Franklin Roosevelt. Over his four terms, Roosevelt had three different Vice Presidents and the second man to serve was Henry Wallace.
Wallace was the former Secretary of Agriculture who, after his one term as Vice President, was dumped from the ticket in favor of Truman. While Wallace was Vice President, however, he used the power of that office to create a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates. He hired a young man named Norman Borlaug to run it.
So Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize. And Norman Borlaug was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But considering the connection, it was really Henry Wallace that saved two billion people!
Or was it George Washington Carver? You remember Carver, don’t you? The peanut?
But here’s something that very few people know: When Carver was 19 years old and a student at Iowa State University, he had a Dairy Sciences professor who, on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, would allow his six-year-old boy to go on “botanical expeditions” with the brilliant student.
It was George Washington Carver who took that boy and instilled in him a love for plants and a vision for what they could do for humanity. It was George Washington Carver who pointed six-year-old Henry Wallace’s life in a specific direction – long before he ever became Vice President of the United States.
It’s amazing to contemplate, isn’t it?
George Washington Carver flapping his butterfly wings with the peanut. There are currently 266 things he developed from the peanut that we still use today. He flapped his wings with the sweet potato. There are 88 things Carver originated from the sweet potato that we still use today. And while no one was even looking, George Washington Carver flapped his wings a couple of times with a six-year-old boy. And just happened to save the lives of more than two billion people…and counting.
So maybe it should have been George Washington Carver – Person of the Week! Or the farmer from Diamond, Missouri?
His name was Moses and he lived in a slave state, but he didn’t believe in slavery. This made him a target for psychopaths like Quantrill’s Raiders who terrorized the area by destroying property by burning and killing. And sure enough, one cold January night, Quantrill’s Raiders rode through Moses’ farm. The outlaws burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off a woman named Mary Washington who refused to let go of her infant son, George.
Now, Mary Washington was a friend of Moses’ wife, Susan. Though distraught, Susan promptly set to work writing messages and contacting nearby farms. She got word through neighbors and towns and two days later managed to secure a meeting for Moses with the bandits.
Susan looked on anxiously as her husband rode off on a black horse. His destination was a crossroad in Kansas several hours to the north. There, at the appointed time, in the middle of the night, Moses met up with four of Quantrill’s Raiders. They were on horseback, carrying torches, and had flour sacks tied over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes. There, the farmer traded the only horse they had left on their farm for what the outlaws threw him in a dirty burlap bag.
As the bandits thundered off on their horses, Moses fell to his knees and there, alone on that dark winter night, the farmer pulled from the bag a cold, naked, almost-dead baby boy. Quickly he jerked open his own coat and his shirt and placed the child next to his skin. Covering him with his own clothes and relying on the warmth from his own body, the man turned and walked that baby home.
Moses walked through the night and into the next morning to get the child to Susan. There, they committed to that tiny human being – and to each other – that they would care for him. They promised the boy an education to honor his mother, Mary, who they knew was already dead. That night, they gave the baby their own name…and that is how Moses and Susan Carver came to raise that little baby, George Washington.
So when you think about it, maybe it was the farmer from Diamond, Missouri, who saved the two billion people. Or was it his wife who was responsible? Certainly it was Susan who organized the effort – it was she who demanded immediate action.
Is there an ending to this story? Exactly who was it that saved the two billion lives? Is there a specific person to whom we could point? How many lives would we need to examine in order to determine whose action saved two billion people – a number that continues to increase every minute?
And how far forward would we need to go in your life to show the difference you make?
There are generations yet unborn whose very lives will be shifted and shaped by the moves you make and the actions you take today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
Every single thing you do matters.
You have been created as one of a kind. On the planet Earth, there has never been one like you and there never will be again. Your spirit, your thoughts and feelings, your ability to reason and act all exist in no one else. The rarities that make you special are no mere accident or quirk of fate. You have been created in order that you might make a difference.
You have within you the power to change the world.
Know that your actions cannot be hoarded, saved for later, or used selectively. By your hand, millions – billions – of lives will be altered, caught up in a chain of events begun by you this day. The very beating of your heart has meaning and purpose. Your actions have value far greater than silver or gold.
Your life and what you do with it today matters forever.
Adapted from The Butterfly Effect: How Your Life Matters by Andy Andrews, © 2009 Simple Truths LLC