Thursday, April 17, 2008

Making sense out of chaos

On Wednesday, MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz died. The official MIT obituary and various news reports (e.g. the LA Times) credit him with inventing chaos theory. Actually, more precisely, a 1972 AAAS paper by Lorenz coined the idea of the “butterfly effect”.

The 1972 paper has only a small number of citations in Google scholar, consistent with the known limitation of the Google metric for measuring influence in the 1970s and 1980s. However, Lorenz’ 1993 book, The Essence of Chaos, has 440 citations.

Alas, this is all a surprise to me. I had not heard of chaos theory (or his contribution to it), when I knew Prof. Lorenz as the chairman of the MIT meteorology department, a job he held from 1977-1981. In my last two years at MIT, I was an undergraduate meteorology major from 1977-1979; they didn’t have an official undergraduate major, so I designed my own (which was later copied by my classmates, Patricia and Norm, who unlike me used their forecasting skills after graduation).

At the heart of the major was taking 3 of the 4 required first-year classes for the S.M. degree in meteorology: 2 semester of dynamic meteorology (equations of air flow) taught by Lorenz, and 2 semesters of synoptic meteorology (forecasting with paper isobar maps) taught by Fred Sanders (who died in 2006). The first semester, I got As in both (my best semester at MIT) but because Lorenz’ class was more predictable (math rather than the black art of prediction), I only took his class in the spring.

The two men were as opposite as night and day. Sanders was gregarious, affable, perhaps a bit loud (or at least theatric), and eager to be liked; Lorenz was quiet, shy, and very transactional in dealing with students. As one of his successors at MIT, Kerry Emanuel, told the LA Times

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.
Lorenz, Sanders and my advisor Reginald Newell — at one point the world’s leading climatologist and the original global warming skeptic — were the backbone of the department, the concentration of midcareer (the most productive phase) talent then not available anywhere else in the world. (As a prospective grad student, I looked into it).

They accepted me for the PhD program, but at age 21 I was sick of school and returned home to California. So I didn’t get a PhD until 42, and in a social science on the West Coast rather than a physical science on the East Coast.


Johnny said...

Thanks for sharing! Just wonder what motivates you to start your PhD in a completely different field later on in life?

Joel West said...

I was an undergrad in meteorology and so my initial plans to get a PhD were in meteorology. But then I never used that degree or knowledge after I got my S.B.

Instead, I went back to computer programming and then in 1987 started a software company. So in 1994, when I decided I wanted to be a college professor, I chose to get a management PhD to study the problems I’d been dealing with as an entrepreneur. I also considered engineering (business problems were more interesting) and poli sci/policy (too hard to get a job).

Probably more information than you wanted.