What is the butterfly effect 3

Edward Lorenz When the butterfly effect wreaked havoc

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If a butterfly flutters in Brazil, it influences the atmosphere and can thus contribute to a hurricane in Texas: This phenomenon is known as the butterfly effect. The term comes from Edward Lorenz, the pioneer of chaos theory.

Status: 05/22/2017

Edward Norton Lorenz was born on May 23, 1917 in West Hartford, Connecticut, USA. Early on, he explained in a book, he was interested in numbers. First he went to Dartmouth College, then he made his master's degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 1940. During World War II, he worked on weather forecasting for the US Army Air Force. In 1946 he came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and studied meteorology. There he did his doctorate and received a professorship in 1962. And while working at the institute, he also discovered the butterfly effect.

A small mistake by Lorenz has a big impact

In 1961 Lorenz worked on a simple weather forecast model with a computer that was primitive by today's standards. For the simulation he used three variables: temperature, air pressure and wind direction and related these. He played through his model and got the first results. But when he calculated the model one more time, he made a minor mistake: Instead of performing his calculations with the number 0.56127 as he did the first time, he inadvertently omitted the last three digits and used 0.56. This minimal change led to a completely different result.

Small changes can make a big difference

A butterfly-like structure made of lines that never intersect

Lorenz investigated the matter. He found that the smallest variations in a dynamic deterministic process - like in a weather model - can later lead to very large differences. This dependence on the initial conditions became known as the so-called butterfly effect. Since then, the metaphor has stood for the fact that relationships are so complex that the smallest deviations can have the greatest impact. His example: global weather that cannot be foreseen in the long term. Accordingly, the weather is a so-called deterministic chaotic system. Lorenz recognized that behind the phenomenon there is a relatively simple system of equations, which in turn creates a pattern of infinite complexity and never leads to the same result. That was the beginning of the "chaos theory".

The "butterfly" came to Lorenz's mind when he saw a computer graphic for his calculations: It represents the results of a simple weather model using abstract points and lines: It shows two "wings", which are similar to the wings of a butterfly, made up of lined up points. Each point corresponds to the solution of the differential equation system, which consists of the three variables. The points describe a chaotic movement on a loop line in three-dimensional space that never meets. Even if you make these calculations for the atmosphere over and over again and they are never identical, they still keep the same butterfly-like shape over and over again.

Kyoto Prize for Basic Scientific Knowledge

Until 1987 Lorenz was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In addition to numerous other scientific awards - for example he received the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Geosciences in 1983 and was accepted into the Academy of Sciences of the former Soviet Union (USSR) in 1988 - he received the Kyoto Prize in 1991 in the basic sciences category. At the award ceremony, his chaos theory was recognized as "one of the most dramatic changes in mankind's view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton". Edward Lorenz died on April 16, 2008 at the age of 90.

Chaos research

Chaos research is a branch of physics and mathematics and deals with the order in dynamic systems. A dynamic system is the mathematical model of a process, the course of which depends crucially on the initial state and which cannot be foreseen in the long term. Such a non-linear, unpredictable process is also the weather. Another example of chaotic systems is traffic chaos - where the name says it all: It is impossible to know exactly when a traffic jam will occur again at certain points. The orbits of planets and moons also cannot be calculated endlessly in advance.