RIP Ed Lorenz

Lorenz attractor The man who discovered the “butterfly effect” died this morning at the age of 90.

Ed Lorenz was a meteorologist; I will spare you most of the details of his career, as they can be found in the MIT obituary. But back in the early 60s, when he was trying to figure out why weather prediction was so difficult, he discovered that even a simple set of equations can produce fundamentally unpredictable results (play with this effect here!). Scientists in virtually every field of study have been banging their heads against this fact in utter frustration for the past 45 years.

Quoting from an email Inez Fung sent ’round to the department:

[Lorenz] had published three papers in 2006, and was not sure what he would work on next.

Talking about his landmark 1963 paper “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow”, he said he realized that he had discovered something significant the very same night – about weather prediction – he had no clue about the broad impacts of the paper. He also did not know if the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas – he had attempted such a calculation, and the results were very sensitive to assumptions about the stability of the atmosphere.

Who wants to start a betting pool on the number of obituaries that will make cheesy jokes about the effects of Lorenz’s last breath on global weather patterns and/or butterflies? It seems to be a slow news week so I predict at least two cartoons.


  1. BrianR wrote:

    I love the Lorenz Attractor … I had that as my desktop wallpaper for a long time. The James Gleick book “Chaos” does a great job, I think, of talking about Lorenz’s work.

  2. Andrew Ironwood wrote:

    Gleick’s book is where I was introduced to the Lorenz equations meself (and because of that, I spent the better part of a summer playing on the computer with various transforms of said equations as well).

    So far as the cartoons: I’ll honestly be surprised if there’s more than two (but then, I could be wrong — it’s happened once or twice before [grin]…)

  3. Ken Clark wrote:

    His work is the reason I learned to write computer programs, modeling drive pendulum systems, all because one of my professors had Lorenze butterfly working on a computer in the physics lab. Thank you Ed, for teaching me “Hey, wont it be cool if…”

  4. LindaK wrote:

    Just found this – very cool. Thanks!

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *