Mechanical Pencil, no pocket protector

A geek. My prized possession was a mechanical pencil. That was my life when I was a kid. It would make sense that school science and math would be a source of excitement. Not so. I lived in a messy world where things did not work according to theory or with the nice finite answers that science classes said should be there. My understanding of the world around me did not have simple answers based on clean correlations, nice linear relationships. School did not provide me a vocabulary to describe what I knew to be true, so I was turned off by science and math classes. They did not provide the options to explore the way reality played out in front me. I guess that drove me to be a closeted, frustrated geek with a really nice mechanical pencil.

The only thing worse than science class, was the science fair; all those dreadful “normal” science fair volcanoes and sprouting seeds. I always looked for a way to fulfill the assignment to create a science project without actually doing any normal science work. One year I used a little telescope and a Polaroid camera (remember those prints in 60 seconds?) that produced really grainy photos of the moon. Another effort compared the weather forecast to the actual weather. Cool! A geek with a statistical study! For two weeks I collected the the weather ears from the Washington Post front page. This was wonderful for a developing non linear thinker. Here was an example of science that was messy and unpredictable. Life as I knew it. Naturally, the daily predictions were close to the daily report of what actually happened, but not that close. My science teacher actually thought that what I did was wonderful. A perfect solution. I did a whole poster about the messy state of life and science, I spent almost no time on it, my science teacher was impressed with simple statistics and I got to use my mechanical pencil.

What I did not know, and frankly, would not have cared, was that at almost the same time that I was creating my little study of messy weather prediction, a meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, was loading a computer with data exploring statistical methods of weather prediction with the hope of improving the overall accuracy of knowing if you needed an umbrella. What Lorenz found in his mathematical models was fairly revolutionary. He found that no matter how sophisticated his data collection or algorithms became, weather prediction mathematics was only stable for a very short time into the future. As he published his work, it became known as “chaos theory” and changed the nature of weather prediction from a linear exercise seeking describe the events of tomorrow to a nonlinear exercise that sought to explain the range of possibilities that tomorrow might bring.

How different my life might have been if my education had been enlightened by this kind of research. A scientist who made no claim of linear determinism but stood by nonlinear determinism! He embraced the chaos of the real world and offered a statistical explanation. If I had been armed with this knowledge, I might have taken a much different approach to high school and life after that. Instead, I worked with newspaper reports that today will be sunny with a high of 70. After Lorenz introduced his mathematical models, weather predictions moved into what we expect today, where the chance of rain is expressed as percentage. Lorenz' math allowed forecasting to calculate the number of possible scenarios and how many of them include rain. This small change would have ruined my science fair project because I would not have been able to use my simple statistics to evaluate the weather.

It was many years later when I was doing graduate level research that I ran across chaos theory. As I read the mathematical foundations and the way people were using the equations, I remembered reading the weather forecasts in the Washington Post and being turned off by the linear restrictions of normal science. For the first time in my life, there was a fire to study calculus to understand Lorenz' equations and how the simple equations graphed complex and beautiful fractals. This might have been the end of the conversation, but life rarely allows simple closure. The importance of nonlinear thinking was brought back to me when my son graduated from college.

George Will the columnist was awarded an honorary degree and addressed the graduates on a lovely spring day. Mr. Will cemented his conservative credentials by praising historical linear thinking in politics and history and advised the graduates to limit themselves to simplistic understandings of linear binary approaches. As always, he was witty but predictable and horribly out of touch. Students rarely attend graduation to hear the commencement speaker, so it is not fair to criticize Mr. Will for boring the students and families. What was really interesting was the speaker that followed. The class salutorian spoke about the future that he envisioned for his classmates. He spoke of a generation that was learning about using chaos theory to predict the future, not just the weather, but business and political forecasting.

I left that graduation with a sense of hope which is really what a graduation should create, even though it rarely does. Mostly, I marveled at the way our lives fold back over on themselves and form the fractal of our biographies. I strolled the campus with my son wondering if Edward Lorenz had a mechanical pencil.

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