Why Mathematicians Have More Fun
Mathematicians like to see the world through a lens of endless possibilities. Meanwhile, the engineer embarks on an itinerary predetermined by the length of the vacation.
The ancient Greeks, inspired by Aristotle’s teachings, began to try to predict weather patterns, even proposing that if a dog rolls on its back, expect a storm.
At MIT, there’s a running joke about the difference between engineers and mathematicians: “When I questioned the validity of a formula, the professor told me, ‘Sorry, we don’t teach validity here in Engineering.’ And that’s how I became a math major.”
If you’re one of those like Professor of Meteorology Ed Lorenz who find the anecdote terribly amusing, it suggests more than just a warped sense of humor. It implies you have a natural inclination to jump hurdles in order to probe the mysteries of universe — or in layman’s terms pretend they’re not there.
The point is that mathematicians see the world through a lens of endless possibilities. Meanwhile, the engineer embarks on a journey predetermined by the length of the vacation. We’re not sure who has a better time, but we are quite certain that innovation lies at the center of the two perspectives, a place where tangible reality meets the boundless abstract. That is precisely where Ed Lorenz spent his days, at a place called MIT.
Raised in a family steeped in MIT’s engineering tradition, he might have been expected to follow suit. But for Lorenz, the tangible world was a distraction. Conventional wisdom held that the weather was a whimsical beast, too chaotic to be tamed. Lorenz’s audacious journey into the meteorological unknown was a rebuff to that notion. It is how he came up with a shocking answer to inexplicable phenomena — Chaos Theory or the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
He conveniently gave it a catchy title, The Butterfly Effect, after which all hell — chaos if you’re a mathematician like Lorenz — broke loose at MIT.
Choosing his own path, Lorenz pursued dual mathematics degrees at Dartmouth and Harvard before completing his Ph.D. at MIT. By 1955, he joined the ranks as an assistant MIT professor of meteorology. His rapid climb wasn’t just due to his academic prowess but his innate ability to perceive hurdles not as barriers but as opportunities.
From his early days, Lorenz grappled with a formidable challenge: predicting the weather, an enigma that confounded humanity for millennia. Historically, our understanding of weather was entwined with astrology. Early astrologers or proto-engineers, studied celestial patterns to foretell people’s futures. It wasn’t until a philosopher, Aristotle, that we began to truly harness the power of observation, laying foundational stones for meteorology. Through his writings, Aristotle not only introduced the terms meteor and meteorology but is considered the founder of weather forecasting.
He wrote, in his book called Meteorology in 350 BC: If the flashing body is set on fire and rushes violently to the Earth it is called a thunderbolt; if it is only half of fire, but violent also and massive, it is called a meteor.”
The ancient Greeks, inspired by Aristotle’s teachings, began to try to predict weather patterns, even proposing that if a dog rolls on its back, expect a storm. Of course, the dog walk in Central Park debunks these theories. Following Aristotle, meteorological advancements hit a wall, which apparently engineers were unable to penetrate for two millennia until one fine day in Cambridge at MIT.
The watershed moment arrived in 1961. Amid a routine computer lab experiment during a frigid Cambridge winter, Ed Lorenz experienced a revelation. During what seemed like an ordinary coffee break, he dismantled the prevailing belief that long-term weather prediction was a pipe dream. Lorenz sought answers to Aristotle’s timeless question: What will the weather do? His approach, rooted in the language and logic of mathematics, was to discard irrelevant variables. The facts told him the truth, weather isn’t impossible to predict, just hard to predict accurately and for a reason called chaos. This pursuit of abstraction is what drew him to MIT, a haven for thinkers like him.
With this mindset, Lorenz delved into topics most considered insurmountably complex, from erratic weather patterns to pandemics and financial market upheavals. Supported by MIT’s nurturing environment, he unveiled groundbreaking insights.
This narrative underscores the idea that our surroundings play a pivotal role in amplifying potential, reminiscent of ancient beliefs about celestial influences on human fate. Prestigious institutions, like MIT that value open inquiry and intellectual honesty, can drive individuals towards uncharted territories, even when faced with skepticism. For Lorenz, MIT was transformative.
Without its backdrop, his revolutionary findings might have gone unnoticed. But by encouraging skepticism and championing the cause of devling into the unknown, Lorenz reshaped our understanding of the universe. Without MIT, he might have been ignored as loopy; with it, the universe budged from its stubbornly engineered axis.