Saturday, April 19, 2008

Of Lorenz's Chaotic Butterflies and Singapore

Obituary: Edward Lorenz; Pioneer in Creation of Chaos Theory (1917-2008)

By Patricia SullivanWashington Post Staff WriterThursday, April 17, 2008; B07

Edward N. Lorenz, 90, a meteorologist who laid the groundwork for chaos theory, memorably asking whether the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas, died of cancer April 16 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At MIT, Dr. Lorenz accidentally discovered how small differences in the early stages of a dynamic system, such as the weather, can trigger such huge changes in later stages that the result is unpredictable and essentially random.

At the time, Dr. Lorenz was studying why it's so hard to accurately forecast the weather, but the implications of his work go far beyond meteorology.

The new science of chaos fundamentally changed the way researchers address topics from the geometry of snowflakes to the predictability of which movies will become blockbusters. The butterfly effect became a popular way of describing unpredictability, most recently in "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006), the Academy Award-winning documentary with former Vice President Al Gore.

It also "brought about one of the most dramatic changes in mankind's view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton," said the committee that awarded Dr. Lorenz the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic sciences.

Yet Dr. Lorenz's 1962 paper on chaos theory was largely ignored for years. A decade later, when he gave a talk about predictability, with a title asking the famous butterfly question, the scientific establishment was ready to consider the idea. Other scientists who had been working on similar questions swarmed to the field, and one by one, certain assumptions of science began to falter.

"When I first heard this [butterfly effect] idea, I thought it very clever but it couldn't be literally true," said James Gleick, a science writer and author of "Chaos: Making a New Science" (1987), which explored Dr. Lorenz's work. "But it is literally true. . . . Complex dynamical systems, if they are chaotic, never repeat themselves. They are capable of an infinite variety of behavior."
This means that simple systems can result in complex behavior and that the slightest change in underlying causes can make the result unpredictable.

Chaos theory -- also known as the science of nonlinearity, the science of complexity, the science of random recurrent behavior or the science of turbulence and discord -- has thus been called the third great scientific revolution of the 20th century, along with relativity and quantum physics.

Edward Norton Lorenz was born May 23, 1917, in West Hartford, Conn., and graduated from Dartmouth College. He received a master's degree in mathematics in 1940 from Harvard University and served as a weather forecaster for the Army Air Forces during World War II.
In 1948, he received a doctorate in meteorology from MIT and joined its faculty. He remained there the rest of his career.

In 1961, he was using a primitive computer to model weather forecasts, which led to his most renowned work.

Using 12 equations, such as the relationship between air pressure and wind speed, he ran the model and found exactly what he sought. But taking a shortcut on the next run, he found that a tiny decimal point change led to a significant error.

Rather than ignore the response, which peers had considered an anomaly, Dr. Lorenz realized measurement is not perfect. If temperature, pressure or humidity measurements were off by a hundredth of a percent, the rainfall he expected in Las Vegas on Thursday could show up as a snowstorm in Beijing a week later. A computerized model of how the "butterfly effect" works can be found at the Exploratorium's Web site.

"He had the ability to make important connections between atmospheric phenomena and simple theoretical models," said Isaac Held, senior research scientist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. "He taught us that complexity can follow from very simple underlying rules. His study of the limits to the predictability of weather initiated an entire new field of chaotic dynamics."

Dr. Lorenz was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, and in 1983, he and oceanographer Henry Stommel were jointly awarded the $50,000 Crafoord Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, an honor established to recognize fields not eligible for Nobel Prizes.

Dr. Lorenz was known as shy and humble. He enjoyed hiking and cross-country skiing and sought out mountain trails near every scientific meeting he attended, one of his daughters said.
His wife, Jane Logan Lorenz, died in 2001.

Survivors include three children, Nancy Lorenz of Roslindale, Mass., Edward Lorenz of Grasse, France, and Cheryl Lorenz of Eugene, Ore.; and four grandchildren.Chaos theory helped shape Dr. Lorenz's conclusions as he worked to calculate long-term forecasts. Given the problems of input, the meteorologist determined that it's impossible to accurately predict weather beyond two or three weeks with a reasonable degree of accuracy

My comments:

Hi friends,

Let me first confess that I was a poor student of Physics.

I was so poor in Physics that I asked to downgrade my Physics from A Levels to AO levels whilst in junior college many moons ago. I found that I had very little clue what the A levels physics lecturer was talking about and the textbook (Nelkon, I think it was) was too heavy to lug around!

Anyway, I was already too busy with the Student Council ( for which I was in charge of students’ lockers) ,being secretary of the photographic club ( which allowed me to move around pretending to take pictures whilst the rest of the college was standing in formation) , and being in the track & field team ( and you know how poor NJC was then and we had to go across to Hwa Chong to borrow their track!). I had no time to do four A levels (and of course I gave the S-papers the miss too)!

As it turned out, it seems that I made the right decision as having less than four A levels was no impediment to my being admitted into the university. My extracurricular activities probably impressed the interview board! Or maybe they just wanted to give this poor boy a chance in life ( and I am grateful for that).

Enough about myself.

I cannot remember why I was fascinated about Lorenz’s Chaos theory and its related Butterfly effect, but I was. I guess it is always intriguing to think that an action as insignificant as a butterfly’s flapping can lead to catastrophic earth-shattering events the other side of the world.

How one sees the world will affect one’s daily behaviour. If one is a fatalist ( or what Rotter classifies as External locus of control), then don’t bother. Just do what you have been doing and as everything has been pre-determined already, you should just let the powers that be ( eg Providence/ Political leaders etc) run your lives. (Read my post on Locus of control-Are you ready for change?).

But if you are like me who feel that one’s destiny lies in our own hands and that we are the only ones who should decide what kind of life we want (Rotter’s Internal Locus of control), then perhaps we should be more pro-active. When each of us makes an effort to speak up for injustices around us or remind the establishment that not everyone is happy as they are, then each small action will lead to other perhaps larger reactions which eventually lead to the Tornado Lorenz referred to.

So are you prepared to flap your wings, my little butterflies?


Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan

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