life in transformation

Edward Lorenz: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas

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A professor at MIT, Edward Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere–or a model of the atmosphere–could trigger vast and often unsuspected results.

These observations ultimately led him to formulate what became known as the butterfly effect–a term that grew out of an academic paper he presented in 1972 entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

Lorenz’s early insights 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. In meteorology, it led to the conclusion that it may be fundamentally impossible to predict weather beyond two or three weeks with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Some scientists have since asserted that the 20th century will be remembered for three scientific revolutions–relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos.

In 1991, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize for basic sciences in the field of earth and planetary sciences. Lorenz was cited by the Kyoto Prize committee for establishing “the theoretical basis of weather and climate predictability, as well as the basis for computer-aided atmospheric physics and meteorology.” The committee added that Lorenz “made his boldest scientific achievement in discovering ‘deterministic chaos,’ a principle which has profoundly influenced a wide range of basic sciences and brought about one of the most dramatic changes in mankind’s view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton.”

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Written by Ilari Valbonesi

April 17th, 2008 at 10:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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