July 25, 2020

Chaos theory

I have mentioned before that my father was a mathematician. During World War 2, he was recruited to become a meteorologist for the Army Air Corp. He received quite the education to prepare, including enough credits to earn a master’s degree from Cal Tech, awarded years later. He was eventually sent to India to try forecasting weather for the planes flying over the Himalayas, which they nicknamed “the Hump”.

That is one reason this article in the Atlantic about herd immunity caught my interest. Edward Lorenz, the scientist, was also a mathematician who became a weather forecaster in World War 2. That experience eventually led him to pioneer “Chaos theory”. Per Wikipedia, “Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos—states of dynamical systems whose apparently-random states of disorder and irregularities are often governed by deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions”. In other words, things are not as random as they seem.

His work is associated with “the butterfly effect”, which is the idea that small variations in conditions initially can have profound effects on outcomes. The idea that even one beat of a butterfly’s wings can have profound effects on a tornado weeks later. This is grand exaggeration that seems implausible. But when you apply an event to a pandemic, you can start to see how one event shapes the outcome.

It is a very interesting read and I highly recommend it. It helps me see the concept of herd immunity in a different way then just the context of immunizations. It also explains the variability we see in numbers of cases, number of deaths, severity of disease, and other ways.

We all have our own roles to play which may effect the downstream cases, as well. Somehow I found this article reassuring. Maybe you will too. And, yes, mathematicians rock!

Wash your hands, cover your nose, keep safe six- really, don’t forget the physical distancing.

And finally, my caveat is that this is my experience and my opinions, which are subject to change as more information is available, and not related to the organization I work for. Thanks for reading.