Through using mathematical examples and visuals to show how seemingly insignificant actions can have a major impact on our lives, Paul Hurst, an associate professor of mathematics, commenced the 2019-2020 school year by speaking at Convocation in the McKay Auditorium on Sept. 26. He taught the best combat against chaos is the Holy Ghost.
“Chaos is involved in important moments in our lives, such as when we have a change of heart or when we start up a new habit,” Hurst said. “Our small and simple actions affect not just ourselves, but those around us. This in turn affects others. Thus, each of us can truly have an impact on everyone else in the world, eventually.
“Everyone is important. If our seemingly insignificant actions have huge consequences, think about the immense positive effects our good actions can have. The small and simple things we do, or others do, have huge unforeseen consequences. This can be a scary thought.”
To demonstrate how these nearly undetectable beginning actions or initial positions can lead to vastly different consequences, Hurst shared an example of rolling die, starting in the same position, dropping the die the same way each time.
He showed a video of six different die rolls, beginning in the same place, dropped using a machine. Each one bounced differently and landed on numbers going from one to six. Each roll began to differ as soon as it hit the ground, bouncing in a different direction or spinning in a different way.
“As you can see, each of the rolls in the video had a different outcome even though they appeared to start from the same place and were dropped in the same manner. They bounced in different directions, and each final result was different,” Hurst explained.
Theoretically, he shared, if the die were dropped the same way, the results would be the same. However, it is nearly impossible to drop die the exact same way. This is what led to the different outcomes. Small, undetectable variations in the die just before they hit the ground caused different outcomes in each roll.
This is where chaos comes into play, according to Hurst. He described chaos as “the branch of mathematics that deals with systems where small differences in initial positions lead to great differences in the long run.”
This chaos shows up in so many aspects of our lives, Kate McLellan, an assistant professor of exercise and sports science, said. “[Chaos] is so prevalent. There are a lot of things we see that have a simple starting point and then completely flip and freak out from there in a way we couldn’t predict.
“I remember C.S. Lewis said, ‘If you go off your path by a single degree, and you keep on that path, pretty soon, you can be going in the opposite direction of what you intended,’ because that change happens and it compounds over itself ... Chaos is kind of like that. It has this really simple start, and then it scientifically freaks out.”
Explaining how this chaos can work in our own lives, Hurst shared the story of former BYU–Hawaii professor Jack Johnson. Brother Johnson, he said, had never seen an eclipse. In 1988, someone told Johnson about an eclipse happening on the Big Island in 3 years. For the next several years, Johnson and his family focused on making arrangements to travel to the Big Island to see the eclipse. In the months leading up to the trip, Johnson prayed every day they would be able to see the eclipse.
Upon their arrival at the Kona Seaside Hotel, most of their tour group decided to go down by the airport in hopes of having a better view of the eclipse. “Johnson needed a wheelchair to get around, so this was not a feasible option for him. He would have to try to see it from their balcony at the hotel,” Hurst said.
“As Jack lay awake in bed, [his wife] Cassie informed him it was overcast. It appeared the clouds would block their view. However, a few minutes later, a ray of sunlight shot into the room. The Spirit spoke to his mind, ‘Jack, this is a sign that you are going to see the eclipse.’
“It turns out almost all of the Big Island was covered in clouds. The only places where people were able to observe the eclipse were Kona, Waimea, and the tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. The group that went down near the airport to get a better view spent all night on the lava in the rain and ended up not seeing anything. This demonstrates the power of prayer. Our prayers do make a difference, but fervent, persistent prayer results in tender mercies.”
Hurst testified, “Heavenly Father can alter events to our benefit. He can do this through small actions or by influencing others in a seemingly insignificant way. Let’s remember our Heavenly Father wants to help us, and, in fact, does help us more than we realize. It may not seem that way because He has an eternal perspective. Perhaps our greatest protection from chaos is the companionship of the Holy Ghost.
“In the BYUH 2019 Spring Commencement, Elder Brian K. Taylor related how President Ezra Taft Benson, speaking about the Holy Ghost, said the following, ‘The Spirit will be your greatest asset in life. If He is with you, you will achieve all your greatest desires. If He is not, you won’t.’
“If we have the Holy Ghost in our lives, we are tapping into the power that keeps track of the sparrows and has the hairs of your head numbered. This is an indication our Heavenly Father can see through the chaos. He knows the total effect of our actions. He can guide us to where our small actions can have significant benefits.”
Matthew Bowen, an assistant professor of religious education, said he really liked this quote. “It drew my mind to Jacob 4:13 where Jacob says, ‘Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls.’
“The Holy Ghost helps us in ways that aren’t otherwise possible for finite humans to reach into, being able to see things otherwise beyond us because there are so many variables beyond our comprehension.”