16 April 2008

Edward Lorenz dies

Edward Lorenz, father of chaos theory and butterfly effect, dies at 90. (Link goes to MIT press release; I found out from Greg Laden's blog.)

He traditionally gave a lecture to the course on chaos, and he did when I took that class in 2003. I wish I remember what he said! I suspect it was something interesting. Steven Strogatz wrote, in his book Sync,
Every time I taught my chaos course, we'd go through the same ritual each year, and I'd come to look forward to it. I'd call up Professor Lorenz and invite him to give a guest lecture to the class. He'd say, with genuine puzzlement, as if it were an open question, "what should I talk about?" And I'd say, How about the Lorenz equations? "Oh, that little model?" And then, as predictable as the seasons, he'd show his face to my awestruck class, and tell us not about the Lorenz equations but about whatever he was working on then. It didn't matter. We were all there to catch a glimpse of the man who'd started the modern field of chaos theory.

Strogatz wasn't at MIT when I was there -- Dan Rothman taught the class using Strogatz's text -- but Lorenz still gave an annual lecture to that class at least as late as fall of 2006. I'd like to think they did the same silly little dance.


Anonymous said...

i took that class with rothman also, and lorenz came and gave us a special talk too. except in my year (it must have been 2001 or 2002), i think he talked about using sound waves to destroy kidney stones.

seriously i'm 95% sure.

misha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
misha said...

I went to a talk by Lorenz during a conference on nonlinear dynamics at MIT a long time ago (in the 1980s). The talk was rather dull, lacking in perspective. It looked like Lorenz himself was quite uncomfortable with his super-hero status and all the noisy groupies eager to get close to him and express their adoration. I would characterize the whole scene as rather vulgar and distasteful. He certainly was a fine scientist, he stumbled upon an important example of a strange attractor, and his discovery made the field very popular. But promoting him as the father of chaos theory is totally ridiculous.

The chaotic behavior in dynamical systems (the 3 body problem and the geodesic flow on the surfaces of negative curvature come to mind) had been known and studied many decades before him. Already Poincare very explicitly had pointed out the phenomenon of extremely sensitive dependence of the solutions on their initial conditions, and it's clear that Maxwell and Boltzmann were well aware of this phenomenon. The implication that instability is responsible for impossibility of the long term weather forecasts was already discussed in the 1950s by Kolmogorov.

Well, the whole story of lionization of Lorenz reflects badly on our scientific pop-culture, so eager to create and worship heroes. It is unfair to Lorenz, and it is unfair to science that he loved and contributed to.