Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Scientist: Edward Lorenz


I found Edward Lorenz while doing some research on chaos theory for an upcoming m_f article. Who would have thought the guy who gave us one of the thorniest fields in all science was actually a glorified weatherman? Here's what I wrote:

"Chaos theory got started with a computer simulation of the weather, albeit one that didn't work. In the early '60s, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz came up with 12 equations describing temperature, air pressure, and so on, and programmed them into a computer. Then he set various simulations in motion to see how the weather would change over time. One day, Lorenz decided he'd like to rerun the last half of one scenario. But he was too impatient to start at the beginning "“ so he just started with the values the computer had given him halfway through the first time he'd run the sim. Alas, his shortcut didn't work: The results this time were vastly different. The reason? In his haste, he had rounded off what the computer gave him by three decimal places, transforming 2.000001 into 2.000. That was enough to throw the whole thing out of whack. In a system as complex as the weather, he realized, a little change can make a big difference.

Today, chaos theorists recognize that corny-but-true idea as the bedrock of their field. They call it 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions.' You've heard of it in snappier terms: it's the butterfly that flaps its wings in China and causes a tornado halfway around the globe."