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The man who joined dots

Lorenz became an overnight sensation in the scientific community giving (proper) birth to the chaos theory — popularly known as ‘the butterfly effect’.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2008 21:24 IST

American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz taught us, the people who bring you this page, two things. One, that quirky, eye-grabbing titles (and headlines) make great sense. In 1963, Lorenz had written the pathbreaking paper in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences. ‘Deterministic Non-Periodic Flow’. Nobody noticed it. Then, in 1972, he reworked the title, now called ‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off A Tornado in Texas?’ Lorenz became an overnight sensation in the scientific community giving (proper) birth to the chaos theory — popularly known as ‘the butterfly effect’. Which takes us to the second thing we learnt from Lorenz: very small changes in a system can have very large and unexpected consequences. In other words, precise long-term forecasts are impossible because there are too many interconnecting, cause-effect colliding factors. Thus, we always have refrained from making precise — or on many occasions, any — predictions about anything.

The death of Lorenz this week at the age of 90, while not being predicted, was not unexpected either. Going by that grandest law of nature — Death is Inevitable — it was only a matter of time. Which in the case of any living organism, humans included, is inextricably tied up with the biological process of ageing. Which makes us, students of Lorenz, come to a 30-year-old study which has found that the older people get, the more likely they are to be happy — or, if you’re a contrarian pessimist, happier than ever before. While the University of Chicago’s sociologists took three decades to find this out, writer John Updike had already confirmed this nearly a decade ago, when in an interview he mentioned that old age has the distinct advantage over youth because “most of life’s many questions have already been answered”. That there are many other factors apart from chronological experience that comes into play in measuring the happiness quotient is, of course, a given once you have a Lorenzian viewpoint.

But if there is one advantage of being old as well as powerful, it is that you may actually get a better deal from younger women. (Strangely, the empirical evidence shows an overwhelmingly male bias.) So a 55-year-old Vladimir Putin will marry a 25-year-old gymnast (and ex-Playboy model); a 53-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy has married a 41-year-old supermodel and a 60-year-old Salman Rushdie is purportedly dating a 32-year-old athlete-model. Edward Lorenz was married only once to his late wife Jane. Their age difference was slight.