The butterfly effect: When little things create BIG problems

Following news that a rat managed to knock out the Fukushima power plant here are some of the best examples of small ripples creating humungous calamities.

The butterfly effect describes how one tiny action can escalate into an enormous calamity.

That is what happened this week when it was revealed that a rat managed to knock out the Fukushima power plant – the same one that was hit by the 2011 tsunami.

It turns out, if you scour the history books, that quite a few seemingly small events or blunders have led to massive catastrophes.

Here are some of the best examples:

It seems insane that an angst-ridden 23-year-old could trigger the First World War - and slaughter of 16million people – just by shooting Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Yet this is only the tip of the insanity iceberg. The whole tragic event might have been avoided if the Austro-Hungarian heir’s chauffeur hadn’t driven the wrong way.

Driver Leopold Loyka made a wrong turn past Sarajevo’s Schiller’s deli, where forlorn gunman Gavrilo Princip was dining after his earlier assassination plan failed.

One can almost picture Princip’s surprise as he sat there with a sandwich in one hand and a pistol in his pocket.

So, on the morning of June 28, 1914, the Yugoslav nationalist, who hoped to unify occupied Bosnia with independent Serbia, leapt out of the café and seized his chance.

Loyka spotted Princip but, adding blunder to bungle, accidentally stalled the car as he slammed on his brakes and tried to reverse the open car away from the assassin.

Two bullets later, both Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie, who was shot as she tried to cover her husband, lay dead.

The episode caused Austro-Hungary to declare war on Serbia and – thanks to a series of alliances – for Europe’s major powers to fight an unimaginably bloody conflict.

If only Loyka had sat-nav.

Anyone who has used Microsoft Windows knows the PC operating system can occasionally crash – particularly if you press the wrong buttons.

But until the cruiser USS Yorktown loaded the NT version of the software, no one knew it could also cripple warships as well as home computers.

The whole sorry affair, which saw the U.S. Navy’s first “Smartship” being towed back to port, occurred when a sailor accidentally pressed “0” on the ship’s database.

This triggered a divide-by-zero error, bringing down the network responsible for running the integrated control centre on the bridge, monitoring condition assessment, damage control, machinery control and fuel control, monitoring the engines and navigating the ship.

Basically, it brought down everything because dividing by zero is a mathematical impossibility.

And, in doing so, it caused the ship to lose control of its propulsion system for two hours and forty-five minutes following the blunder in September 1997.

They were lucky no missiles were released.

Oops doesn’t begin to cover it.

It may come as a surprise to some that the biggest disaster in space history didn’t involve either Nasa’s Challenger shuttle or its Apollo 13 mission.

In fact, these very public tragedies were dwarfed by a secret calamity that might have been avoided with an extra turn of a spanner.

The July 3, 1969 explosion of the USSR’s N1 rocket – the biggest non-nuclear blast in history – occurred just weeks before the Americans landed on the moon.

A loose bolt was sucked into a fuel pump and, in doing so, shut down 29 of the Russian shuttle’s 30 engines.

So, 23 seconds into its flight, the rocket – full of fuel – crashed back down to earth, destroying the launch pad and killing all the crew and engineers on the ground.

The explosion was the equivalent of 6.7 kilotons of TNT being detonated – enough to level a town the size of Luton.

American satellites photographed the obliterated site on the desert steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan.

Yet the perennially secretive Soviets were somehow able to keep the disaster – and how they lost the space race - under wraps until the fall of communism.

Also revealed in the 1990s was how the brave Bolsheviks kept on trying – and failing – with ten launches between 1969 and 1974, when the moon programme was axed.

A for effort, comrades!

“Lions led by donkeys” is how the bloodbath of the First World War is often characterised.

And few battles better epitomise this notion - of brave boys being sent to their slaughter by bungling top brass – than the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Because the assault on the Turkish mainland could have cost far fewer lives if Australian and British commanders had synchronised their watches.

As a result, British General Sir Alexander Godley began an artillery barrage of Ottoman positions seven minutes before Australian troops attacked.

Giving the Ottomans enough time to reinforce, a total of 372 Australian soldiers out of the 600 who charged along the Nek peninsula on August 7 were killed in seconds.

The battle emboldened the Turks, who went on to successfully defend their homeland.

The Gallipoli campaign continued until January 1916 when Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) forces were withdrawn.

It led to the deaths of 8,709 Australians and 2,721 men from New Zealand, and is said to have awakened the national consciousness of these countries.

Both nations commemorate Anzac Day every year on April 25 – the anniversary of the start of the campaign – in remembrance of all their fallen soldiers.

As a journalist, having spelling errors pointed out is the bain [sic] of my life. But at least none of my  typos have crippled the internet.

That’s what happened to one worker at search giant Google thanks to an errant forward slash – or “/” – during one weekend in 2009.

The employee, who was in charge of recording virus-ridden websites and warning searchers not to use them, managed to place a malware warning on ALL searchable sites.

The blunder occurred after the unnamed techie accidentally substituted a single / - part of every URL – for the complete web address of one of these dodgy sites.

It meant that any site with a forward slash in the address – i.e, every single one of them – was now subject to these warnings.