This month the American Scientist used this image to commemorate a path breaking study in experimental mathematics that influenced and founded many new areas of science such as Chaos Theory. The experiments were conducted by Enrico Fermi, John Pasta and Stanislaw Ulam at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in 1955 and led to an understanding of phenomena such as the one depicted above. England’s Severn River’s broad estuary periodically funnels exceptionally high flood tides up river, forming what’s known as a tidal bore. The waves that follow the initial onrush maintain their form for many kilometers, allowing record-breaking surfing runs. Such nondispersive waves arise in many physical systems. In 1955, the three scientists released a technical report entitled Studies of Nonlinear Problems: I that contained ‘a little discovery.’ This modest claim ushered in the era of computational science and gave birth to nonlinear science. Today analyses of the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam problem continue to lead to deeper insights into many areas—including the interplay between regular and chaotic behaviour.
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