Friday, April 18, 2008

Edward Lorenz 1917-2008

Edward Lorenz, one of the creators of Chaos Theory died yesterday, 17th April 2008.

Lorenz studied weather and was the first scientist to identify the simple yet astonishing fact central to Chaos Theory: that small differences in a dynamic system could produce incredibly different endpoints.His famous academic paper from 72 said it best as summarised a generations thoughts on Chaos Theory: "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?"

But Lorenz's theory was put forward in 1961 when he used a computer model for predicting weather patterns, but entered the initial variable as 0.506 instead of 0.506127. The result was a totally different system. Lorenz's 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences contained the memorable quote: "if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull's wings could change the course of weather forever."
But later speeches changed the seagull into a far more media friendly and poetic butterfly.
The seagull effect just isn't the same.

I can remember being absolutely entranced by Chaos Theory, Strange Attractors, Butterfly Effect, Mandlebrot Sets and Koch curves as a teen. I devoured the books and even today still have a battered copy of James Gleick's Chaos on my shelf.

In fact, as I recall I even mentioned it in my viva interview at university. A viva is a borderline interview where they decide to give you the lower or higher grade based on what seems like a very informal chat. We talked about this and that, science in general and population biology came up. I strated whittling on about the new research in chaos theory of population dynamics and they were obviously interested enough to give me the higher grade. So thanks to Professor Lorenz my dear mother has one higher grade to berate about when she accuses me of not using my degree. Ho Hum.

But hearing of Lorenz's death made me post this and writing this has led to all sorts of websites and reading. No doubt your own research will do the same. But we probably wont start in exactly the same place and, thanks to Lorenz, we know for certain that we're not going to end up in the same place thanks to those troublesome buterflies.

Extra homework: Quick guide to Chaos Theory online course.

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