The Hidden Heroines of Chaos

Two women programmers played a pivotal role in the birth of chaos theory. Their previously untold story illustrates the changing status of computation in science.

The story of chaos is usually told like this: Using the LGP-30, a meteorologist named Edward Norton Lorenz made paradigm-wrecking discoveries. In 1961, having programmed a set of equations into the computer that would simulate future weather, he found that tiny differences in starting values could lead to drastically different outcomes. This sensitivity to initial conditions, later popularized as the butterfly effect, made predicting the far future a fool’s errand. But Lorenz also found that these unpredictable outcomes weren’t quite random, either. When visualized in a certain way, they seemed to prowl around a shape called a strange attractor.

About a decade later, chaos theory started to catch on in scientific circles. Scientists soon encountered other unpredictable natural systems that looked random even though they weren’t: the rings of Saturn, blooms of marine algae, Earth’s magnetic field, the number of salmon in a fishery. Then chaos went mainstream with the publication of James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science in 1987.

All told, it’s a neat narrative. Lorenz, “the father of chaos,” started a scientific revolution on the LGP-30. But in fact, Lorenz was not the one running the machine. There’s another story, one that has gone untold for half a century. A year and a half ago, an MIT scientist happened across a name he had never heard before and started to investigate. The trail he ended up following took him into the MIT archives, through the stacks of the Library of Congress, and across three states and five decades to find information about the women who, today, would have been listed as co-authors on that seminal paper. And that material, shared with Quanta, provides a fuller, fairer account of the birth of chaos.

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