The Butterfly Effect: What Does It Really Signify? - Tim Palmer

9 May 2017

Meteorologist Ed Lorenz was one of the founding fathers of chaos theory. In 1963, he showed with just three simple equations that the world around us could be both completely deterministic and yet practically unpredictable. More than this, Lorenz discovered that this behaviour arose from a beautiful fractal geometric structure residing in the so-called state space of these equations. In the 1990s, Lorenz’s work was popularised by science writer James Gleick. In his book Gleick used the phrase “The Butterfly Effect” to describe the unpredictability of Lorenz’s equations. The notion that the flap of a butterfly’s wings could change the course of future weather was an idea that Lorenz himself used in his outreach talks.

However, Lorenz used it to describe something much more radical than can be found in his three simple equations. Lorenz didn’t know whether the Butterfly Effect, as he understood it, was true or not. In fact, it lies at the heart of one of the Clay Mathematics Millennium Prize problems, and is still an open problem today. In this talk I will discuss Lorenz the man, his background and his work in the 1950s and 1960s, and will compare and contrast the meaning of the “Butterfly Effect" as most people understand it today, and as Lorenz himself intended it to mean. The implications of the “Real Butterfly Effect" for understanding the predictability of nonlinear multi-scale systems (such as weather and climate) will be discussed. No technical knowledge of the field is assumed. 

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Further reading:
T.N.Palmer, A. Döring and G. Seregin (2014): The Real Butterfly Effect. Nonlinearity, 27, R123-R141.