Edward Lorenz passed away last Wednesday. He was a meteorologist that introduced the world to numerical weather prediction back in the 1960′s. He discovered deterministic chaos and in doing so, revolutionized the way science dealt with natural processes.
I highly recommend the book “Chaos“, written by James Gleick, as a down-to-earth explanation of nonlinear mathematics. This book was instrumental in stoking my curiosity of the natural world and trying to understand explanations of the things we experience every day.
I have done simple numerical experiments much like the one Dr. Lorenz performed in 1961, the results of which were published in his seminal paper, Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow. It remains fascinating to this day that extremely minute changes in initial conditions can have such a large effect on future system states.
The New York Times article I link to above has another good tidbit: Henri Poincaré showed that the gravitational dance of as few as three heavenly bodies was hopelessly complex to calculate, even though the underlying equations of motion seemed simple.
I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium honoring Dr. Lorenz a few years back. I was stunned to learn I was sitting in the same room, only a couple of rows back, from this great man. Hearing from a long line of former students and colleagues, learning how Dr. Lorenz sparked their subsequently successful careers, was very moving.
I’ll leave you with the Lorenz strange attractor. Rest in peace, Dr. Lorenz.