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kottke.org posts about Edward Lorenz

The Women Who Helped Pioneer Chaos Theory

posted by Jason Kottke   May 29, 2019

The story goes that modern chaos theory was birthed by Edward Lorenz’s paper about his experiments with weather simulation on a computer. The computing power helped Lorenz nail down hidden patterns that had been hinted at by computer-less researchers for decades. But the early tenets of chaos theory were not the only things that were hidden. The women who wrote the programs that enabled Lorenz’s breakthroughs haven’t received their proper due.

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.

The two women who programmed the computer for Lorenz were Ellen Gille (née Fetter) and Margaret Hamilton. Yes, that Margaret Hamilton, whose already impressive career starts to look downright bonkers when you add in her contributions to chaos theory.