MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Maybe you've heard of the "butterfly effect." It's an idea that an insect flapping its wings can lead to big changes like a tornado on the other side of the earth. It made its way in to the movie Jurassic Park and other places. The scientist who actually came up with this idea, his name is Edward Lorenz, and he died yesterday at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 90 years old. NPR's David Kestenbaum joins me now to talk about his work. Hi David.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Hi, Madeleine.
BRAND: Did he really show that? I thought that was a canard, that it really could be.
KESTENBAUM: Well, it's not like he got a butterfly, you know, and sort of watched for tornados. He showed that theoretically yes, it was true. Basically it was in the 1960s and he's playing around with computers. He basically puts the numbers in and then let it run for a while and see what numbers came out. And once he ran it and then he ran it a second time putting the same numbers in, but he got a really different outcome and he thought what the heck is going on. So he later wrote a paper, does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas. Basically, you know, what came out of this was that you weren't going to be able to predict the weather for more than a week or two because the system was what they call chaotic.
BRAND: And hence the "chaos theory." He's considered the pioneer, the creation of that.
KESTENBAUM: He's one of them, yeah. I mean his work sort of sat around for a while. It just wasn't really appreciated.
BRAND: It wasn't appreciated. So, you say he wrote this paper like 40 years ago or something, right?
BRAND: What was the reaction?
KESTENBAUM: I talked to one of his colleagues who was in his class when Lorenz was talking about this and he said he used to have fights with people about what it meant or what it didn't mean. And I remember when I was in college and "chaos theory" was all the rage, and I took a whole class on it. It was kind of a revelation because you know, if you take a standard physics class they just give you problems that you can solve. This basically said you know there are really simple systems you can set up that you actually can't solve, that we just can't predict what's going to happen to them.
BRAND: So David, chaos wins out then, chaos trumps all?
KESTENBAUM: In some cases, I mean, you know, with the weather is certainly a chaotic system, but there are other things that are perfectly predictable.
BRAND: Towards the end of his life, Lorenz, did he feel vindicated? Because initially his research was not embraced.
KESTENBAUM: I talked to one of his colleagues, Kerry Emanuel, who, at MIT, who said that it was really hard to figure out how he felt about all this because he was kind of a gentleman scientist. He said, you know, one of the great things you could get him talking about was going hiking and he went for a lot of long hikes. And he said he was really hard to keep up with. He told me one funny story. He said there was one night they were sitting up and he heard a coyote bark right behind him. And as it turned out it was Edward Lorenz making a coyote sound, which, he said you know, he'd be a gentleman most of the time, totally reserved and then occasionally something like that would happen.
BRAND: Can I say, chaotic moment just erupted.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BRAND: All right. Thank you, David.
KESTENBAUM: Your welcome.
BRAND: That's NPR's David Kestenbaum talking about scientist Edward Lorenz, one of the fathers of "chaos theory." Lorenz died yesterday. He was 90 years old.