The Butterfly Effect versus the Divergence Meter: The Physics of Stein’s Gate

Imagine if you just discovered how to text through time, i.e. time-texting, when a close friend meets a shocking death.  Wouldn’t you text yourself in the past to try to prevent it?  But what if, every time you change the time-line and alter the future in untold ways, the friend continues to die, and you seemingly can never stop it?  This is the premise of Stein’s Gate, a Japanese sci-fi animé bringing in the paradoxes of time travel, casting CERN as an evil clandestine spy agency, and introducing do-it-yourself inventors, hackers, and wacky characters, while it centers on a terrible death of a lovable character that can never be avoided.

It is also a good computational physics project that explores the dynamics of bifurcations, bistability and chaos. I teach a course in modern dynamics in the Physics Department at Purdue University.  The topics of the course range broadly from classical mechanics to chaos theory, social networks, synchronization, nonlinear dynamics, economic dynamics, population dynamics, evolutionary dynamics, neural networks, special and general relativity, among others that are covered in the course using a textbook that takes a modern view of dynamics [1].

For the final project of the second semester the students (Junior physics majors) are asked to combine two or three of the topics into a single project.  Students have come up with a lot of creative combinations: population dynamics of zombies, nonlinear dynamics of negative gravitational mass, percolation of misinformation in presidential elections, evolutionary dynamics of neural architecture, and many more.  In that spirit, and for a little fun, in this blog I explore the so-called physics of Stein’s Gate.

Stein’s Gate and the Divergence Meter

Stein’s Gate is a Japanese TV animé series that had a world-wide distribution in 2011.  The central premise of the plot is that certain events always occur even if you are on different timelines—like trying to avoid someone’s death in an accident.

This is the problem confronting Rintaro Okabe who tries to stop an accident that kills his friend Mayuri Shiina.  But every time he tries to change time, she dies in some other way.  It turns out that all the nearby timelines involve her death.  According to a device known as The Divergence Meter, Rintaro must get farther than 4% away from the original timeline to have a chance to avoid the otherwise unavoidable event. 

This is new.  Usually, time-travel Sci-Fi is based on the Butterfly Effect.  Chaos theory is characterized by something called sensitivity to initial conditions (SIC), meaning that slightly different starting points produce trajectories that diverge exponentially from nearby trajectories.  It is called the Butterfly Effect because of the whimsical notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in Florida. In the context of the butterfly effect, if you go back in time and change anything at all, the effect cascades through time until the present time in unrecognizable. As an example, in one episode of the TV cartoon The Simpsons, Homer goes back in time to the age of the dinosaurs and kills a single mosquito. When he gets back to our time, everything has changed in bazaar and funny ways.

Stein’s Gate introduces a creative counter example to the Butterfly Effect.  Instead of scrambling the future when you fiddle with the past, you find that you always get the same event, even when you change a lot of the conditions—Mayuri still dies.  This sounds eerily familiar to a physicist who knows something about chaos theory.  It means that the unavoidable event is acting like a stable fixed point in the time dynamics—an attractor!  Even if you change the initial conditions, the dynamics draw you back to the fixed point—in this case Mayuri’s accident.  What would this look like in a dynamical system?

The Local Basin of Attraction

Dynamical systems can be described as trajectories in a high-dimensional state space.  Within state space there are special points where the dynamics are static—known as fixed points.  For a stable fixed point, a slight perturbation away will relax back to the fixed point.  For an unstable fixed point, on the other hand, a slight perturbation grows and the system dynamics evolve away.  However, there can be regions in state space where every initial condition leads to trajectories that stay within that region.  This is known as a basin of attraction, and the boundaries of these basins are called separatrixes.

A high-dimensional state space can have many basins of attraction.  All the physics that starts within a basin stays within that basin—almost like its own self-consistent universe, bordered by countless other universes.  There are well-known physical systems that have many basins of attraction.  String theory is suspected to generate many adjacent universes where the physical laws are a little different in each basin of attraction. Spin glasses, which are amorphous solid-state magnets, have this property, as do recurrent neural networks like the Hopfield network.  Basins of attraction occur naturally within the physics of these systems.

It is possible to embed basins of attraction within an existing dynamical system.  As an example, let’s start with one of the simplest types of dynamics, a hyperbolic fixed point

that has a single saddle fixed point at the origin. We want to add a basin of attraction at the origin with a domain range given by a radius r0.  At the same time, we want to create a separatrix that keeps the outer hyperbolic dynamics separate from the internal basin dynamics.  To keep all outer trajectories in the outer domain, we can build a dynamical barrier to prevent the trajectories from crossing the separatrix.  This can be accomplished by adding a radial repulsive term

In x-y coordinates this is

We also want to keep the internal dynamics of our basin separate from the external dynamics. To do this, we can multiply by a sigmoid function, like a Heaviside function H(r-r0), to zero-out the external dynamics inside our basin.  The final external dynamics is then

Now we have to add the internal dynamics for the basin of attraction.  To make it a little more interesting, let’s make the internal dynamics an autonomous oscillator

Putting this all together, gives

This looks a little complex, for such a simple model, but it illustrates the principle.  The sigmoid is best if it is differentiable, so instead of a Heaviside function it can be a Fermi function

The phase-space portrait of the final dynamics looks like

Figure 1. Hyperbolic dynamics with a basin of attraction embedded inside it at the origin. The dynamics inside the basin of attraction is a limit cycle.

Adding the internal dynamics does not change the far-field external dynamics, which are still hyperbolic.  The repulsive term does split the central saddle point into two saddle points, one on each side left-and-right, so the repulsive term actually splits the dynamics. But the internal dynamics are self-contained and separate from the external dynamics. The origin is an unstable spiral that evolves to a limit cycle.  The basin boundary has marginal stability and is known as a “wall”. 

To verify the stability of the external fixed point, find the fixed point coordinates

and evaluate the Jacobian matrix (for A = 1 and x0 = 2)

which is clearly a saddle point because the determinant is negative.

In the context of Stein’s Gate, the basin boundary is equivalent to the 4% divergence which is necessary to escape the internal basin of attraction where Mayuri meets her fate.

Python Program:

#!/usr/bin/env python3
# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
Created on Sat March 6, 2021

@author: David Nolte
Introduction to Modern Dynamics, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2019)

2D simulation of Stein's Gate Divergence Meter
import numpy as np
from scipy import integrate
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt


def solve_flow(param,lim = [-6,6,-6,6],max_time=20.0):

    def flow_deriv(x_y, t0, alpha, beta, gamma):
        #"""Compute the time-derivative ."""
        x, y = x_y
        w = 1
        R2 = x**2 + y**2
        R = np.sqrt(R2)
        arg = (R-2)/0.1
        env1 = 1/(1+np.exp(arg))
        env2 = 1 - env1
        f = env2*(x*(1/(R-1.99)**2 + 1e-2) - x) + env1*(w*y + w*x*(1 - R))
        g = env2*(y*(1/(R-1.99)**2 + 1e-2) + y) + env1*(-w*x + w*y*(1 - R))
        return [f,g]
    model_title = 'Steins Gate'

    xmin = lim[0]
    xmax = lim[1]
    ymin = lim[2]
    ymax = lim[3]
    plt.axis([xmin, xmax, ymin, ymax])

    N = 24*4 + 47
    x0 = np.zeros(shape=(N,2))
    ind = -1
    for i in range(0,24):
        ind = ind + 1
        x0[ind,0] = xmin + (xmax-xmin)*i/23
        x0[ind,1] = ymin
        ind = ind + 1
        x0[ind,0] = xmin + (xmax-xmin)*i/23
        x0[ind,1] = ymax
        ind = ind + 1
        x0[ind,0] = xmin
        x0[ind,1] = ymin + (ymax-ymin)*i/23
        ind = ind + 1
        x0[ind,0] = xmax
        x0[ind,1] = ymin + (ymax-ymin)*i/23
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = 0.05
    x0[ind,1] = 0.05
    for thetloop in range(0,10):
        ind = ind + 1
        theta = 2*np.pi*(thetloop)/10
        ys = 0.125*np.sin(theta)
        xs = 0.125*np.cos(theta)
        x0[ind,0] = xs
        x0[ind,1] = ys

    for thetloop in range(0,10):
        ind = ind + 1
        theta = 2*np.pi*(thetloop)/10
        ys = 1.7*np.sin(theta)
        xs = 1.7*np.cos(theta)
        x0[ind,0] = xs
        x0[ind,1] = ys

    for thetloop in range(0,20):
        ind = ind + 1
        theta = 2*np.pi*(thetloop)/20
        ys = 2*np.sin(theta)
        xs = 2*np.cos(theta)
        x0[ind,0] = xs
        x0[ind,1] = ys
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = -3
    x0[ind,1] = 0.05
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = -3
    x0[ind,1] = -0.05
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = 3
    x0[ind,1] = 0.05
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = 3
    x0[ind,1] = -0.05
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = -6
    x0[ind,1] = 0.00
    ind = ind + 1
    x0[ind,0] = 6
    x0[ind,1] = 0.00
    colors =, 1, N))
    # Solve for the trajectories
    t = np.linspace(0, max_time, int(250*max_time))
    x_t = np.asarray([integrate.odeint(flow_deriv, x0i, t, param)
                      for x0i in x0])

    for i in range(N):
        x, y = x_t[i,:,:].T
        lines = plt.plot(x, y, '-', c=colors[i])
        plt.setp(lines, linewidth=1)
    return t, x_t

param = (0.02,0.5,0.2)        # Steins Gate
lim = (-6,6,-6,6)

t, x_t = solve_flow(param,lim)

plt.savefig('Steins Gate')

The Lorenz Butterfly

Two-dimensional phase space cannot support chaos, and we would like to reconnect the central theme of Stein’s Gate, the Divergence Meter, with the Butterfly Effect.  Therefore, let’s actually incorporate our basin of attraction inside the classic Lorenz Butterfly.  The goal is to put an attracting domain into the midst of the three-dimensional state space of the Lorenz butterfly in a way that repels the butterfly, without destroying it, but attracts local trajectories.  The question is whether the butterfly can survive if part of its state space is made unavailable to it.

The classic Lorenz dynamical system is

As in the 2D case, we will put in a repelling barrier that prevents external trajectories from moving into the local basin, and we will isolate the external dynamics by using the sigmoid function.  The final flow equations looks like

where the radius is relative to the center of the attracting basin

and r0 is the radius of the basin.  The center of the basin is at [x0, y0, z0] and we are assuming that x0 = 0 and y0 = 0 and z0 = 25 for the standard Butterfly parameters p = 10, r = 25 and b = 8/3. This puts our basin of attraction a little on the high side of the center of the Butterfly. If we embed it too far inside the Butterfly it does actually destroy the Butterfly dynamics.

When r0 = 0, the dynamics of the Lorenz’ Butterfly are essentially unchanged.  However, when r0 = 1.5, then there is a repulsive effect on trajectories that pass close to the basin. It can be seen as part of the trajectory skips around the outside of the basin in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The Lorenz Butterfly with part of the trajectory avoiding the basin that is located a bit above the center of the Butterfly.

Trajectories can begin very close to the basin, but still on the outside of the separatrix, as in the top row of Figure 3 where the basin of attraction with r0 = 1.5 lies a bit above the center of the Butterfly. The Butterfly still exists for the external dynamics. However, any trajectory that starts within the basin of attraction remains there and executes a stable limit cycle. This is the world where Mayuri dies inside the 4% divergence. But if the initial condition can exceed 4%, then the Butterfly effect takes over. The bottom row of Figure 2 shows that the Butterfly itself is fragile. When the external dynamics are perturbed more strongly by more closely centering the local basin, the hyperbolic dynamics of the Butterfly are impeded and the external dynamics are converted to a stable limit cycle. It is interesting that the Butterfly, so often used as an illustration of sensitivity to initial conditions (SIC), is itself sensitive to perturbations that can convert it away from chaos and back to regular motion.

Figure 3. (Top row) A basin of attraction is embedded a little above the Butterfly. The Butterfly still exists for external trajectories, but any trajectory that starts inside the basin of attraction remains inside the basin. (Bottom row) The basin of attraction is closer to the center of the Butterfly and disrupts the hyperbolic point and converts the Butterfly into a stable limit cycle.

Discussion and Extensions

In the examples shown here, the local basin of attraction was put in “by hand” as an isolated region inside the dynamics. It would be interesting to consider more natural systems, like a spin glass or a Hopfield network, where the basins of attraction occur naturally from the physical principles of the system. Then we could use the “Divergence Meter” to explore these physical systems to see how far the dynamics can diverge before crossing a separatrix. These systems are impossible to visualize because they are intrinsically very high dimensional systems, but Monte Carlo approaches could be used to probe the “sizes” of the basins.

Another interesting extension would be to embed these complex dynamics into spacetime. Since this all started with the idea of texting through time, it would be interesting (and challenging) to see how we could describe this process in a high dimensional Minkowski space that had many space dimensions (but still only one time dimension). Certainly it would violate the speed of light criterion, but we could then take the approach of David Deutsch and view the time axis as if it had multiple branches, like the branches of the arctangent function, creating time-consistent sheets within a sheave of flat Minkowski spaces.


[1] D. D. Nolte, Introduction to Modern Dynamics: Chaos, Networks, Space and Time, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2019)

[2] E. N. Lorenz, The essence of chaos. (University of Washington Press, 1993)

[3] E. N. Lorenz, “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow,” Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 130-141, 1963 (1963)

Biased Double-well Potential: Bistability, Bifurcation and Hysteresis

Bistability, bifurcation and hysteresis are ubiquitous phenomena that arise from nonlinear dynamics and have considerable importance for technology applications.  For instance, the hysteresis associated with the flipping of magnetic domains under magnetic fields is the central mechanism for magnetic memory, and bistability is a key feature of switching technology.

… one of the most commonly encountered bifurcations is called a saddle-node bifurcation, which is the bifurcation that occurs in the biased double-well potential.

One of the simplest models for bistability and hysteresis is the one-dimensional double-well potential biased by a changing linear potential.  An example of a double-well potential with a bias is

where the parameter c is a control parameter (bias) that can be adjusted or that changes slowly in time c(t).  This dynamical system is also known as the Duffing oscillator. The net double-well potentials for several values of the control parameter c are shown in Fig. 1.   With no bias, there are two degenerate energy minima.  As c is made negative, the left well has the lowest energy, and as c is made positive the right well has the lowest energy.

The dynamics of this potential energy profile can be understood by imagining a small ball that responds to the local forces exerted by the potential.  For large negative values of c the ball will have its minimum energy in the left well.  As c is increased, the energy of the left well increases, and rises above the energy of the right well.  If the ball began in the left well, even when the left well has a higher energy than the right, there is a potential barrier that the ball cannot overcome and it remains on the left.  This local minimum is a stable equilibrium, but it is called “metastable” because it is not a global minimum of the system.  Metastability is the origin of hysteresis.

Fig. 1 A biased double-well potential in one dimension. The thresholds to destroy the local metastable minima are c = +/-1.05. For values beyond threshold, only a single minimum exists with no barrier. Hysteresis is caused by the mass being stuck in the metastable (upper) minimum because it has insufficient energy to overcome the potential barrier, until the barrier disappears at threshold and the ball rolls all the way down to the bottom to the new location. When the bias is slowly reversed, the new location becomes metastable, until the ball can overcome the barrier and roll down to its original minimum, etc.

           Once sufficient bias is applied that the local minimum disappears, the ball will roll downhill to the new minimum on the right, and in the presence of dissipation, it will come to rest in the new minimum.  The bias can then be slowly lowered, reversing this process. Because of the potential barrier, the bias must change sign and be strong enough to remove the stability of the now metastable fixed point with the ball on the right, allowing the ball to roll back down to its original location on the left.  This “overshoot” defines the extent of the hysteresis. The fact that there are two minima, and that one is metastable with a barrier between the two, produces “bistability”, meaning that there are two stable fixed points for the same control parameter.

           For illustration, assume a mass obeys the flow equation

including a damping term, where the force is the negative gradient of the potential energy.  The bias parameter c can be time dependent, beginning beyond the negative threshold and slowly increasing until it exceeds the positive threshold, and then reversing and decreasing again.  The position of the mass is locally a damped oscillator until a threshold is passed, and then the mass falls into the global minimum, as shown in Fig. 2. As the bias is reversed, it remains in the metastable minimum on the right until the control parameter passes threshold, and then the mass drops into the left minimum that is now a global minimum.

Fig. 2 Hysteresis diagram. The mass begins in the left well. As the parameter c increases, the mass remains in the well, even though it is no longer the global minimum when c becomes positive. When c passes the positive threshold (around 1.05 for this example), the mass falls into the right well, with damped oscillation. Then the control parameter c is decreased slowly until the negative threshold is passed, and the mass switches to the left well with damped oscillations. The difference between the “switch up” and “switch down” values of the control parameter represents the “hysteresis” of the this system.

The sudden switching of the biased double-well potential represents what is known as a “bifurcation”. A bifurcation is a sudden change in the qualitative behavior of a system caused by a small change in a control variable. Usually, a bifurcation occurs when the number of attractors of a system changes. There is a fairly large menagerie of different types of bifurcations, but one of the most commonly encountered bifurcations is called a saddle-node bifurcation, which is the bifurcation that occurs in the biased double-well potential. In fact, there are two saddle-node bifurcations.

Bifurcations are easily portrayed by creating a joint space between phase space and the one (or more) control parameters that induce the bifurcation. The phase space of the double well is two dimensional (position, velocity) with three fixed points, but the change in the number of fixed points can be captured by taking a projection of the phase space onto a lower-dimensional manifold. In this case, the projection is simply along the x-axis. Therefore a “co-dimensional phase space” can be constructed with the x-axis as one dimension and the control parameter as the other. This is illustrated in Fig. 3. The cubic curve traces out the solutions to the fixed-point equation

For a given value of the control parameter c there are either three solutions or one solution. The values of c where the number of solutions changes discontinuously is the bifurcation point c*. Two examples of the potential function are shown on the right for c = +1 and c = -0.5 showing the locations of the three fixed points.

Fig. 3 The co-dimension phase space combines the one-dimensional dynamics along the position x with the control parameter. For a given value of c, there are three or one solution for the fixed point. When there are three solutions, two are stable (the double minima) and one is unstable (the saddle). As the magnitude of the bias increases, one stable node annihilates with the unstable node (a minimum and the saddle merge) and the dynamics “switch” to the other minimum.

The threshold value in this example is c* = 1.05. When |c| < c* the two stable fixed points are the two minima of the double-well potential, and the unstable fixed point is the saddle between them. When |c| > c* then the single stable fixed point is the single minimum of the potential function. The saddle-node bifurcation takes its name from the fact (illustrated here) that the unstable fixed point is a saddle, and at the bifurcation the saddle point annihilates with one of the stable fixed points.

The following Python code illustrates the behavior of a biased double-well potential, with damping, in which the control parameter changes slowly with a sinusoidal time dependence.

Python Code:

#!/usr/bin/env python3
# -*- coding: utf-8 -*-
Created on Wed Apr 17 15:53:42 2019
@author: nolte
D. D. Nolte, Introduction to Modern Dynamics: Chaos, Networks, Space and Time, 2nd ed. (Oxford,2019)

import numpy as np
from scipy import integrate
from scipy import signal
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt

T = 400
Amp = 3.5

def solve_flow(y0,c0,lim = [-3,3,-3,3]):

    def flow_deriv(x_y, t, c0):
        #"""Compute the time-derivative of a Medio system."""
        x, y = x_y

        return [y,-0.5*y - x**3 + 2*x + x*(2*np.pi/T)*Amp*np.cos(2*np.pi*t/T) + Amp*np.sin(2*np.pi*t/T)]

    tsettle = np.linspace(0,T,101)   
    yinit = y0;
    x_tsettle = integrate.odeint(flow_deriv,yinit,tsettle,args=(T,))
    y0 = x_tsettle[100,:]
    t = np.linspace(0, 1.5*T, 2001)
    x_t = integrate.odeint(flow_deriv, y0, t, args=(T,))
    c  = Amp*np.sin(2*np.pi*t/T)
    return t, x_t, c

eps = 0.0001

for loop in range(0,100):
    c = -1.2 + 2.4*loop/100 + eps;
    coeff = [-1, 0, 2, c]
    y = np.roots(coeff)
    xtmp = np.real(y[0])
    ytmp = np.real(y[1])
    X[loop] = np.min([xtmp,ytmp])
    Y[loop] = np.max([xtmp,ytmp])
    Z[loop]= np.real(y[2])

lines = plt.plot(xc,X,xc,Y,xc,Z)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)

y0 = [1.9, 0]
c0 = -2.

t, x_t, c = solve_flow(y0,c0)
y1 = x_t[:,0]
y2 = x_t[:,1]

lines = plt.plot(t,y1)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)
plt.ylabel('X Position')

lines = plt.plot(c,y1)
plt.setp(lines, linewidth=0.5)
plt.ylabel('X Position')
plt.xlabel('Control Parameter')
plt.title('Hysteresis Figure')

Further Reading:

D. D. Nolte, Introduction to Modern Dynamics: Chaos, Networks, Space and Time (2nd Edition) (Oxford University Press, 2019)

The Pendulum Lab