12 May 2008

Another of the Science Giants Passes

Posted by Dan Satterfield

You probably do not recognize the name Ed Lorenz. If I tell you that he was a Mathematician and Meteorologist you probably still would not know who I am talking about. He was famous in science circles though, and you have heard of him too.

You know him for what he discovered.

Back in the early 1960’s Lorenz was running a computer model and made a mistake while inputting the initial data. The mistake was very very small. He misplaced a number after a decimal point.

Kind of like adding your grocery bill up and instead of 49.25cents it was 49.25. and 1/100th of cent. No big deal right. Tell the grocer to keep the change.

Well Lorenz found that when he looked at his computer model, the answer he was expecting was very, very different. He found that in some systems- like the Atmosphere, a very small change in the initial state can lead to a vastly different outcome.

He wrote a paper about it in 1972 called “Can The Flap of a Butterflies Wings in Brazil, Set off a Tornado in Texas”.
Now I bet YOU HAVE heard of that before.

It has come to be called CHAOS theory, and more than one person has said that it was one of the most important discoveries in Physics in the 20th century. One writer at MIT where he was a professor says it ranks right beside Relativity and Quantum mechanics.

Ed Lorenz died last month at the ripe age of 90.

Weather is a chaotic system. This means that a small change in the initial state can lead to dramatically different results in the future.

This is bad news for weather forecasters like me, it means that since we do not know the precise state of the atmosphere everywhere, we will never be able to make perfectly accurate forecasts. A little job security for me I guess!!