His computer riddle led to chaos theory

Times Staff Writer

Edward N. Lorenz, the MIT meteorologist whose efforts to use computers to increase the precision of weather forecasts inadvertently led to the discovery of chaos theory and demonstrated that precise long-range forecasts are impossible, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 90.

Lorenz was perhaps best known for the title of a 1972 paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The memorable title pithily summarized the essence of chaos theory -- that very small changes in a system can have very large and unexpected consequences.

Although the chaos theory was initially applied to weather forecasting, it subsequently found its way into a wide variety of scientific and nonscientific applications, including the geometry of snowflakes and the predictability of which movies will become blockbusters.

His work “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,” wrote the committee that awarded him the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic sciences in the field of earth and planetary sciences.


By showing that there are limits to the predictability of many systems, Lorenz “put the last nail in the coffin of the Cartesian universe and fomented what some have called the third scientific revolution of the 20th century, following on the heels of relativity and quantum physics,” said atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lorenz was also “a perfect gentleman, and through his intelligence, integrity and humility set a very high standard for his and succeeding generations,” he added.

One dramatic conclusion of his work is that it is impossible to predict weather more than three weeks ahead of time with any degree of certainty.

The roots of chaos theory date to at least the late 19th century, when French physicist Henri Poincare discovered to his chagrin that it was not possible to calculate the stability of a celestial system containing more than two bodies -- at least using techniques available at the time.

That was a shock because Newton’s laws of gravity and motion promise order and predictability, and Poincare concluded that there must be other equations that would eliminate the problem. In the absence of computers, however, there was little anyone could do to test that thesis.

In 1961, a young assistant professor of meteorology at MIT was using a primitive Royal McBee LPG-30 computer to study simple models of the atmosphere based on a series of 12 differential equations.

After one run, he decided he wanted to study the end of the calculation in greater depth.

Rather than running the entire calculation again, he chose a point in the middle of the calculation and entered the previously calculated values for that point.


He then went off for a coffee break to avoid the incessant noise from the machine.

When he returned, to his surprise he found that the calculated weather patterns were grossly different from those produced in the first computation. After determining that the Royal McBee hadn’t simply blown a vacuum tube, he began looking more closely at the calculation itself.

Ultimately, he concluded that the original calculations had been carried out to six significant figures.

To save space, however, the printout he used had rounded each value off to only three places.


That subtle difference, less than 1% of the original values, was sufficient to drive the system in a completely different direction.

Lorenz worked out the math involved and reported his findings in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences in a 1963 paper called “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow.”

The first paper fell on deaf ears, however, and he received little attention until his 1972 “butterfly” talk at a meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

Lorenz later said that he had planned to use a gull as an illustration but that an MIT colleague suggested a butterfly would have more impact. He chose Brazil for its alliterative value.


According to the Web of Science online database, Lorenz’s original paper has now received at least 4,000 unique citations by subsequent authors, making it one of the most prolifically cited papers of all time.

Edward Norton Lorenz was born May 23, 1917, in West Hartford, Conn. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Dartmouth College in 1938 and a master’s degree in mathematics from Harvard in 1940.

During the war, he served as a weather forecaster for the U.S. Army Air Corps, earning a master’s degree in meteorology from MIT in 1943.

After the war, he continued his studies and received a doctorate in 1948.


He spent his entire career at MIT.

In addition to the Kyoto Prize, he also received the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ 1983 Crafoord Prize, established to honor fields not eligible for the Nobel Prize.

Lorenz was an active hiker and cross-country skier and made it a point to visit mountain trails near every scientific meeting he attended. He was hiking two weeks before his death, according to his family.

His wife, Jane Logan Lorenz, died in 2001.


Lorenz is survived by daughters Nancy of Roslindale, Mass., and Cheryl Lorenz of Eugene, Ore.; and son Edward of Grasse, France.