Edward Lorenz, Father of Chaos Theory, Dies

Edward Lorenz has died, thus conforming to a recurring pattern.

Edward Lorenz, Father of Chaos Theory, Dies (Photo) This undated photo received courtesy of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows Edward N. Lorenz. Lorenz, a meteorologist who became the father of the modern field of chaos theory, died on April 16, 2008 of cancer in Massachusetts aged 90. (AFP/MIT-HO/Ho) Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who became the father of the modern field of chaos theory, died Wednesday of cancer in Massachusetts aged 90, MIT announced Thursday.

A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lorenz was the first to identify chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems, in which small differences in a dynamic system, like the weather, “could trigger vast and often unsuspected results,” the university said.

A committee that awarded him the 1991 Kyoto prize for basic sciences wrote that Lorenz’s groundbreaking theory represented “one of the most dramatic changes in mankind’s view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton.”

Lorenz’s research led him to develop what became known as the “butterfly effect,” the idea that an infinitesimally small alteration — like the flapping of an insect’s wings — can lead to potentially monumental consequences. The term stemmed from his 1972 academic paper “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?”

MIT said Lorenz’s early work “marked the beginning of a new field of study that impacted not just the field of mathematics but virtually every branch of science — biological, physical and social.” “Some scientists have since asserted that the 20th century will be remembered for three scientific revolutions — relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos,” the statement said.

While this event was entirely predictable, it’s nonetheless sad. Lorenz’ work reached pop culture status and is often cited by people, myself included, with little more than a rudimentary understanding of its technical details.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    …thus conforming to a recurring pattern

    🙂

    BTW, your last paragraph doesn’t appear on the main page.

  2. sam says:

    Ha, now I can see the last paragraph. Damn fast that butterfly thingy.

  3. Bithead says:

    Lorenz’ work reached pop culture status and is often cited by people, myself included, with little more than a rudimentary understanding of its technical details.

    Mmmph.
    I sometimes wonder if anything more than a rudimentary understanding is even possible for most people.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    The most important thing I took from Lorenz’s book was the unreliability of computer modeling. Whether it is traffic or weather computer models are being misused and over relied upon. Lorenz found that even the most minor input mistake would essentially void the output. We must also remember how easily inputs can be manipulated to achieve the desired results.

    For years the global warming crowd clung to Mann’s hockey stick graph as proof of a tipping point in climate change. That graph came from Mann’s computer models that were later determined to be greatly flawed. It was too late however to stop the lie that was spreading around the world.

    Much of computer modeling today is nothing more than a 21st snake oil that is sold as one thing but in reality is something much different. Lorenz provided the skepticism that is lacking in todays science. For that contribution I thank him.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Much of computer modeling today is nothing more than a 21st snake oil that is sold as one thing but in reality is something much different. Lorenz provided the skepticism that is lacking in todays science.

    I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that expressing data to the third decimal point overstates our ability to measure most things. Everything is expressed as a hard number rather than a range. And things with dozens of variables, like weather patterns, are almost impossible to predict far in advance but we keep putting out forecasts for public consumption.

  6. floyd says:

    Would ya believe …just 2-1/2 years after Don Adams?

  7. mike/ says:

    I don’t believe that Chaos theory holds up for anything mathematically or scientifically conceivable because no matter what happens, it can be explained in hindsight.

    on the other hand, when it comes to social, emotional, historical, psychological, and, particularly this year, political science, it’s the only theory/explanation that is acceptable. i certainly can’t figure out what the hell is going on…

  8. Bill says:

    For a good overview of chaos read James Gleick’s “Chaos: Making a New Science”.

  9. Bithead says:

    Would ya believe …just 2-1/2 years after Don Adams?

    Yeah. Missed it by THAT much…

  10. Michael says:

    The most important thing I took from Lorenz’s book was the unreliability of computer modeling. Whether it is traffic or weather computer models are being misused and over relied upon. Lorenz found that even the most minor input mistake would essentially void the output.

    My general take was that while modeling can give you trends and even a general prediction, it can’t give you a specific prediction because it can’t model all of the variables.

    Weather prediction is actually pretty good these days, despite the enormous amount of variables involved. Traffic prediction is also getting much better, I think Microsoft is about to release a product based on their traffic analysis algorithms.

    They won’t be accurate down to the exact degree or mile, but they won’t be predicting snow in Florida in June, or that there will be no traffic in NYC during rush hour.

  11. James, I have read somewhere that weather modeling can be reasonably accurate a few weeks out but that it takes longer than that to gather the data and process it so it all is effectively no better than hindsight by the time it is done.