Born 100 years ago this year, Professors Jule Charney and Edward Lorenz gave us numerical weather prediction and chaos theory, highlighting the value of basic research.
In February, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) celebrated the lives and scientific legacies of MIT scientists and meteorologists Jule G. Charney and Edward N. Lorenz at a symposium “MIT on Chaos and Climate.” The event marked the centenary of the birth of these individuals and remembered their pioneering work on the atmosphere, oceans, and climate. Their research not only shaped modern meteorology but also impacted numerous other scientific fields.
The occasion brought together the MIT community, family members, and alumni from the former Department of Meteorology (Course XIX), as well as respected colleagues from related fields. During their careers, Charney and Lorenz chaired Course XIX, which merged to become the current EAPS. The group shared personal memories of the scientists, discussed the significance of their studies, and highlighted their dedication to rigorous fundamental research.
“It’s fair to say that Jule Charney turned the mystery of the erratic behavior of the atmosphere into a recognizable, although a very, very difficult problem in fluid physics,” said Joe Pedlosky ‘59, SM ‘60 (XVI), PhD ‘63 (XIX), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution emeritus senior scientist, and former Charney student. Charney’s work allowed for concise mathematical description of large-scale atmospheric and oceanic circulations, and enabled numerical weather prediction. He also provided insights into weather systems, hurricanes, drought, desertification, and ocean currents. Charney’s charisma, academic integrity, and zeal for research touched many.
Lorenz, described as “a [gentle] genius with a soul of an artist,” revolutionized our understanding of atmospheric dynamics and discovered that infinitesimal differences in initial atmospheric conditions produced dramatically different forecasts—an idea he continued to develop, becoming what is known as chaos theory. This finding shifted thinking away from deterministic numerical weather prediction to probabilistic forecasts, with a ripple effect in non-deterministic systems across science.
Today, the scientists’ research and ideals are seamlessly intertwined, benefiting science and society. This practice of fostering curiosity-driven, basic research with students at MIT now underpins the mission of the Lorenz Center: to understand the complexity of the climate system.
Revisiting the past offers valuable lessons for future thinking and research, said Raffaele Ferrari, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography and chair of the EAPS Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate. “It is inspirational and helpful for our students to learn about the evolution of scientific ideas and the values that have made the department what it is today and that are part of our legacy.”
Inspired, Jagadish Shukla SCD ’76 (XIX) and Richard R. Babcock PhD ’78 (XIX) generously offered challenge grants to match gifts for a new Charney Library. The recently completed renovation provides a comfortable and attractive space on the 14th floor of the department’s home in the Green Building for students and scientists to gather and continue to advance our understanding of the climate system.
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