Lorenz Awarded Kyoto Prize
By Dave Watt
Professor Emeritus Edward N. Lorenz SM '43 of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences has been awarded the 1991 Kyoto Prize for the basic sciences for his pioneering work on the study of mathematically chaotic systems in nature. The amount of the prize is 450 million yen, or over $300,000.
Lorenz, a meteorologist, made his greatest discoveries while
trying to understand circulation in the atmosphere, and its consequences for predicting the weather. His classic 1963 paper, "Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow," demonstrated that even for simple models of the atmosphere, small variations in the initial conditions of a system produced huge changes at later times. Many systems in mathematics and nature have this property, which is now known as chaos.
Ideas about chaos have influenced not only mathematics and meteorology, but all areas of basic science. The Kyoto Prize Committee called the discovery of chaos "as important as . . . the discovery of the principle
of uncertainty in quantum mechanics."
Lorenz later discovered that the chaos inherent in atmosphere circulation made it impossible to forecast the weather over any given area of the globe more than about 10 days in advance. Small changes in the initial values for air pressure or temperature in a remote corner of the globe could eventually propagate into huge changes elsewhere.
He thereby demonstrated that weather cannot be predicted beyond a certain point, regardless of how precisely scientists can measure the conditions of the earth at any given time.
The Kyoto Prizes are given annually "to honor those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual development of mankind." Awards are presented annually, one each in the basic sciences, creative arts and moral sciences, and advanced technology.
Four MIT faculty members have won the award in the past.
Lorenz, 74, has worked at MIT as a student and faculty member since 1940. He will visit Kyoto, Japan, in November to accept the prize.
Lorenz, who is at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, could not be reached for comment.