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Remembering Ed Lorenz

Ed Lorenz in 1994.
(©UCAR, Photo by Curt Zukosky.)

On 31 July 1986, two eminent atmospheric scientists sat down to reminisce for ­several hours at the NCAR Mesa Laboratory. They were former NCAR associate director Philip Thompson and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edward Lorenz, who died on 16 April 2008. Upon receiving the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic research, Lorenz was cited as having “brought about one of the most dramatic changes in mankind’s view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton.” Lorenz was a regular summer visitor at NCAR from its founding in 1960 through the 1990s.

This conversation is one of close to 100 interviews now in the vaults of the Tape-Recorded Interview Project (TRIP), sponsored by the American Meteorological Society and UCAR. Each year several volunteers meet with leaders in the field who reflect on their lives and careers. Audiocassette tapes of the interviews are available to researchers, as are electronic transcripts in most cases. A few interviews are restricted and require permission to use.

Below is an excerpt from the Thompson-Lorenz transcript looking back at the earliest days of NCAR. For more information on TRIP, including interview abstracts, see the Archives’ oral history website ( or contact NCAR archivist Diane Rabson (, 303-497-8508).

Thompson: Well, let’s take a long leap. When I came to NCAR in the summer of 1961, you were also here. As I recall, you and Eric Kraus [a long-time researcher at the universities of Miami and Colorado] were working together on some aspects of air-sea interaction. I don’t recall what came out of that, and I was curious to know how you came together at NCAR. Was it through Walt Roberts’ invitation? [Walt Roberts was the founding director of NCAR and UCAR.]

Lorenz: Well, we came together at NCAR—I think we came together separately as he probably came through Walt’s invitation, as I did, but it wasn’t any joint thing. We knew each other fairly well because we’d done a good deal of skiing together in the East. I never really got involved in air-sea interaction, but I was working on small numerical models a good deal at that time. This is what Eric needed for his air-sea work, so I guess his contribution was the air-sea theory and my contribution was the numerical model to look at it with.

Thompson: What was the specific problem?

Lorenz: I’ve sort of forgotten that there were two papers we finally wrote there. One of them involved monsoonal circulations and the theory of that, which I don’t think had too much oceanography in that. I’ve sort of forgotten just what was the main theme of the other one. I’m not sure that it had too much to do with the sea.

Thompson: Had you previously been in Boulder?

Lorenz: I first came to Boulder in 1956 for a solar weather seminar that Walt Roberts organized, and there were about a half dozen or more meteorologists and some more number of astronomers and some more number of geophysicists and so forth. We had prepared papers to give. I gave one on the theory of the general circulation. Following that, we had discussions as to how the solar weather relations might take place and so forth, and this was the subject matter of a six-week seminar. I’m not sure that we settled much as far as solar relations. It was broadening in that it provided a good contact with people in other areas of geophysics, and I also met a lot of people whom I’d only known by sight before, became pretty well-acquainted with them here. These included Hans Panofsky [Pennsylvania State University], who was at the seminar.

Thompson: So you have been coming to Boulder more or less off and on for thirty years—

Lorenz: No, I didn’t get back here again until 1961, at least not professionally. I think we drove through once. That was the year when we were at the old armory down near the university, and that was a real nice place. I think the entire NCAR was in there, and there was something like twelve scientists—that’s how big NCAR was in those days.

Thompson: It’s curious. It seems to me that the spirit of NCAR was better when we were working in non-institutional surroundings.

Lorenz: I’ve always tended to think of Cockerell Hall days as the golden age of NCAR. [Before the Mesa Lab was completed in 1967, Cockerell Hall, a former women’s dormitory at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was pressed into service as offices for both summer and permanent staff.] It was a wonderful place to work, really, a long hall with only three floors and a social room at one end and you were pretty sure to meet all the other people there and have a lot of conversations. It was an excellent place for an exchange of ideas and get acquainted with quite a few people there in a way I probably wouldn’t have if we had been in a building of this sort [the Mesa Lab], arranged vertically. ♦


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