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Lorenz, Edward N. 1917–2008

Lorenz, Edward N. 1917–2008

(Edward Norton Lorenz)


See index for CA sketch: Born May 23, 1917, in West Hartford, CT; died of cancer, April 16, 2008, in Cambridge, MA. Meteorologist, weather forecaster, educator, and author. One day in 1961, as an associate professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz activated a precursor to the modern computer and entered some calculations that would eventually transform the field of science. Lorenz had discovered that the tiniest variation of data entry, in this case using a number to the third decimal point rather than the sixth, could have a stunning and converse impact on the outcome of the calculation. Lorenz's calculation was intended to enable him to simulate weather conditions and predict future climatic activity. What Lorenz learned was that accurate forecasting was impossible in a world of infinite variables both large and small. His discovery attracted little notice in the scientific community until ten years later, when he made the famous analogy that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could produce a tornado in Texas. His theory came to be known simply as "the butterfly effect." By converting an abstract scientific concept into a recognizable image, Lorenz piqued the interest of scientists from one end of the subject-matter spectrum to the other, and the field of chaos theory was born. Lorenz's discovery has been called one of the top three scientific advances of the twentieth century, as important as theories of relativity and quantum physics. His work led to many awards and honors, including the Holger and Anna-Greta Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy (awarded for achievements beyond the scope of the Nobel Prize), the Kyoto Prize of the Inamori Foundation, and the Roger Revelle Medal of the American Geophysical Union. By all accounts, Lorenz never intended to change the world. He remained with the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than forty years, retiring in 1987. He also held visiting research positions at respected establishments around the world, including the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting. Lorenz was the author of The Essence of Chaos (1993).



Glieck, James, Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.


Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2008, sec. 3, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2008, p. B8.

New York Times, April 17, 2008, p. C17.

Washington Post, April 17, 2008, p. B7.

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