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The reader may already be familiar with the butterfly effect, also known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions, which refers to cascading significant influence over future events (such as weather systems), provoked by miniscule changes to starting conditions (such as Crichton's pseudo-eponymous butterfly, flapping its wings).

While the butterfly effect is a well-established scientific concept in the fields of chaos theory and meteorology, it is also a narrative trope used extensively throughout literature and cinema. In these contexts, the butterfly effect encourages the audience to ask "what if?" about very small changes to the narrative. Speculation about how differently a story might have unfolded, on account of minute alterations to starting conditions, is a dominant driving force in fan fiction, especially the "fix-it" variety of transformative works.

This writeup concerns the context of narrative tropes, and not the context of meteorology. With that in mind, the "breadfall effect" is the conceptual opposite of the butterfly effect, a play on the phrase "bread and butter" and the idea of falling as the opposite of flight. Coined in early 2019 during a discussion about lexical gaps by linguists Julia Bell of USCD and colleague Ashley Campbell of SIUC, a "breadfall" is any scenario in which a mundane, unremarkable or ubiquitous outcome is the result of an exceedingly complex and dramatic set of arch-causes, such that the mundane result would not have plausibly occurred when or how it occurred, if the causes had not also occurred.

In simpler terms, a "breadfall" is anything completely ordinary, that can only correctly be explained through a series of events which are implausible enough to seem not only unconnected to the result, but unlikely to have only such a simple result, and not far more complicated consequences. One straightforward example, drawing on the name given the effect, is finding bread on the ground in a public park: the most reasonable assumption is that someone was feeding ducks and pigeons. If, however, the cause of bread on the ground had been an explosion at a bread factory miles away, launching breadcrumbs at high speed into the upper atmosphere, which later fell as bread rain, this would constitute a breadfall effect. Importantly, the breadfall effect does not apply if the observer automatically assumes an unlikely cause for the mundane outcome: if one observes bread on the ground and assumes it is manna supplied by Divine Providence, itself an exceedingly dramatic cause, then the breadfall effect does not apply, even though that assumption is contextually incorrect.

The breadfall effect is especially pronounced in circumstances which leave the arch-cause(s) forgotten or largely ignored by history, as this amplifies the intensity of narrative interest, when one later considers the sequence of events which brought about a mundane and familiar outcome. As an example, let us consider the case of Hedy Lamarr.

In 1933, the Viennese Jewish actress Hedy Lamarr married an ethnically Jewish Austrofascist arms dealer, Friedrich Mandl, who forced her to convert to Catholicism and have a Catholic wedding. He purportedly threw parties for Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and he maintained close personal ties with Hermann Göring.

Mandl, furiously jealous and controlling, hated that Lamarr was the first actress to simulate a sexual climax onscreen in cinema, so he went far out of his way to obstruct her from continuing her acting career. Lamarr abandoned Mandl and reestablished herself as a Hollywood actress, but as the second World War approached, she was wracked by guilt over having a glamourous public life, when so many others were suffering and rationing their resources to survive.

Lamarr met George Antheil, an American-born, German-descended, avant-garde piano composer and armchair-enthusiast of the study of female endocrinology. She was referred to him when inquiring among her colleagues about how she might enhance her aesthetic assets, but the topic shifted to torpedoes, of all things, and the cryptography of signals used to steer them toward their targets.

Lamarr and Antheil invented a player piano weaponised to encrypt torpedo attack signals. Through a combination of Lamarr's knowledge obtained from her miserable marriage to a counterintuitively Nazi-sympathising arms dealer, and a mechanism taken from one of Antheil's avant-garde compositions, they developed frequency-hopping spread-spectrum technology that used the piano's action - each of eighty-eight keys encoded to a different frequency - to jam the signal and send torpedoes off course.

Lamarr and Antheil patent their torpedo-redirecting piano and the corresponding signal-jamming technology in 1942, but the US Navy was unwilling to use technology created by inventors who were not already in military employ. They were especially doubtful and concerned over Lamarr's connection with Mandl. The technology went unused, but Lamarr was undeterred in her wish to support the American war effort: dubbing herself "just a plain gold-digger for Uncle Sam," she sold kisses and lunch dates in exchange for war bonds, even auctioning one lunch date for $4.5 million, equivalent to $81 million in 2019.

In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, a couple years after Lamarr's patent had expired. The US Navy made use of the technology described in the patent, then used it again in 1973 to create GPS, but Lamarr received no public recognition for any of this until 1997, three years before she died.

1997 was also the year secure Wi-Fi was invented, using a version of Lamarr's frequency-hopping technology. The first consumer product using Bluetooth was released in 1999, likewise using a version of Lamarr's tech.

In other words, a pretty lady left her Nazi husband after publicly faking an orgasm, moved from Vienna to Hollywood to get away from his controlling ass, asked a pianist for help making her tits bigger, invented a way to crash torpedoes, and ultimately caused the existence of three of the most ubiquitous, constantly-used, taken-for-granted technologies in the modern world. If one were asked to guess at the origin of Wi-Fi, knowing none of the above, one would certainly never arrive at such a cockamamie, absurdly tall tale, and if any of the individual plot beats had happened somewhat differently, none of the rest of the story would have played out in this manner.

Ergo, breadfall.

Iron Noder 2019, 9/30

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